Senate Grills FAA Chief on Oversight Failures Linked to Boeing Crashes

Three months after the House issued a critical report on a pair of airline crashes that killed hundreds, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration and the father of one Massachusetts victim testified Wednesday at the Senate.

A picture of Samya Stumo is held up at a Senate hearing as her father, Michael Stumo, testifies Wednesday, June 17. (Courthouse News image)

WASHINGTON (CN) — “Just landed in Addis Ababa, another two hours to Nairobi.”

Samya Stumo texted her father that message last March during a layover in Ethiopia, on her way to Kenya.

It was Stumo’s first international trip for the global health nonprofit Thinkwell, where the 24-year-old from Sheffield, Massachusetts, had been hired as an analyst.

“She never made it,” Michael Stumo testified this morning to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Minutes after takeoff, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed back down to the earth, killing Stumo and the 156 other passengers onboard.

“Samya experienced six minutes of rollercoaster terror — so did the others on the plane — the plane plowed into an Ethiopian farm field and buried itself dozens of feet into the ground,” Stumo said. “When my family and I visited the crash site, we saw that the plane and the passengers had broken into small pieces and were mixed together with jet fuel.”

The March 10 disaster was the second crash in two years of Boeing 737 Max passenger planes, which prompted President Donald Trump to ground the aircraft. Five months earlier, on Oct. 29, 2018, a Lion Air plane crashed into the sea minutes after taking off from Indonesia, killing all 189 of its passengers.

Investigations into the accidents and exploring who is liable for these crashes are ongoing. In October, Ethiopian Airlines was sued by its former chief engineer Yonas Yeshanew, who took screenshots that show the maintenance records for the plane had been resaved a day after it crashed. Whatever the records had said before, on March 11, they said that a flight-control problem reported previously had been resolved.

“The brutal fact shall be exposed … Ethiopian Airlines is pursuing the vision of expansion, growth and profitability by compromising safety,” Yeshanew’s complaint states.

At Wednesday’s Senate hearing, supporters held up posters with pictures of the victims.

Stumo told the committee that both of the doomed flights experienced MCAS malfunctions — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System is a stabilizer that adjusts horizontal positions of the plane to push its nose down. The Boeing 737 Max plane had always been poorly designed, he said, calling the it “a deadly aircraft with ill-fitting engines, bolted to a 50-year-old fuselage.”

“Rather than fixing the aerodynamic design of the aircraft, Boeing took the cheap way out, using glitchy software that relied upon input from a single sensor to push the nose of the plane down to the ground in certain situations,” Stumo testified. 

The House held several hearings on Boeing last year, culminating its investigation with a March report that was critical both of the manufacturer for its missteps and the Federal Aviation Administration for its oversight.

Michael Stumo holds a sign displaying photographs of the individuals who were killed in the March 10, 2019, crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, as Federal Aviation Administration administrator Stephen Dickson testifies during a Wednesday hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP)

FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson, a Trump appointee sworn in last summer, testified Wednesday while there was no timeline for when the agency would recertify the aircraft to fly, the process would “involve international pilots and international travel.”

Dickson said the redesign of the plane tackles the entire flight-control system, not limited to the MCAS, becoming a more ambitious project than anticipated.

“There’s much more redundancy,” he said. “The flight-control computers and pitch compare their signals dynamically — that’s an extremely ambitious project and, as we have moved forward, when you make a system like that more robust, what happens is there are interdependencies with other subsystems on the aircraft that have to be taken into account.”

Roger Wicker, the committee’s chair, grilled Dickson for being uncooperative with his requests for documents relating to the Boeing 737 Max — saying his staff hadn’t received any information pertaining to certification of the plane and other investigatory requests since April 27. Over half of the items requested hadn’t gotten a response, he said, and only 30% of those questions had received any response.

“It is hard not to conclude your team at the FAA has deliberately attempted to keep us in the dark — and by that, I mean our investigation staff, our committee and me,” Wicker said.

Dickson called it “inaccurate to portray the agency as unresponsive.” Seven subject areas in a request from the committee in July had been answered, he said, and the agency was already supporting other ongoing investigations. 

“However, we are going to redouble our efforts,” Dickson said. “I hear your frustration and that’s not OK with me. That’s not where we want to be.”

Both Wicker and the committee’s ranking Democrat, Senator Maria Cantwell, introduced a bill this week to limit the influence of aircraft manufacturers on the certification process. That includes restricting the companies’ ability to analyze key safety systems and moving that responsibility to the FAA.

While Dickson did not directly say Boeing had lied to the agency when issuing its certification, he did say the process was flawed. In one line of questioning with Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, Dickson agreed with the Democratic lawmaker’s statement that there was “no way that Boeing should escape liability.”

“I just want to make clear that the safety responsibility to produce a safe product does belong with Boeing, absolutely,” Dickson said.

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