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FAA’s Boeing-biased Officials: Recuse Yourselves or Resign

Photograph Source: Oleg V. Belyakov – CC BY-SA 3.0

The Boeing-driven FAA is rushing to unground the notorious prone-to-stall Boeing 737 MAX (that killed 346 innocents in two crashes) before several official investigations are completed. Troubling revelations might keep these planes grounded worldwide.

The FAA has a clearly established pro-Boeing bias and will likely allow Boeing to unground the 737 MAX. We must demand that the two top FAA officials resign or recuse themselves from taking any more steps that might endanger the flying public. The two Boeing-indentured men are Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell and Associate FAA Administrator for Aviation Safety Ali Bahrami.

Immediately after the crashes, Elwell resisted grounding and echoed Boeing claims that the Boeing 737 MAX was a safe plane despite the deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Ali Bahrami is known for aggressively pushing the FAA through 2018 to further abdicate its regulatory duties by delegating more safety inspections to Boeing. Bahrami’s actions benefit Boeing and are supported by the company’s toadies in the Congress. Elwell and Bahrami have both acquired much experience by going through the well-known revolving door between the industry and the FAA. They are likely to leave the FAA once again for lucrative positions in the aerospace lobbying or business world. With such prospects, they do not have much ‘skin in the game’ for their pending decision.

The FAA has long been known for its non-regulatory, waiver-driven, de-regulatory traditions. It has a hard time saying NO to the aircraft manufacturers and the airlines. After the aircraft hijackings directing flights to Cuba in the 1960s and 1970s, the FAA let the airlines say NO to installing hardened cockpit doors and stronger latches in their planes. These security measures would have prevented the hijackers from invading the cockpits of the aircrafts on September 11, 2001. The airlines did not want to spend the $3000 per plane. Absent the 9/11 hijackings, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney might not have gone to war in Afghanistan.

The FAA’s historic “tombstone” mentality (slowly reacting after the crashes) is well known. For example, in the 1990s the FAA had a delayed reaction to numerous fatal crashes caused by antiquated de-icing rules. The FAA was also slow to act on ground-proximity warning requirements for commuter airlines and flammability reduction rules for aircraft cabin materials.

That’s the tradition that Elwell and Bahrami inherited and have worsened. They did not even wait for Boeing to deliver its reworked software before announcing in April that simulator training would not be necessary for the pilots. This judgment was contrary to the experience of seasoned pilots such as Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Simulator training would delay ungrounding and cost the profitable airlines money.

Boeing has about 5,000 orders for the 737 MAX. It has delivered less than 400 to the world’s airlines. From its CEO, Dennis Muilenburg to its swarms of Washington lobbyists, law firms, and public relations outfits, Boeing is used to getting its way. Its grip on Congress – where 300 members take campaign cash from Boeing – is legendary. Boeing pays little in federal and Washington state taxes. It fumbles contracts with NASA and the Department of Defense but remains the federal government’s big vendor for lack of competitive alternatives in a highly concentrated industry.

Right now, the Boeing/FAA strategy is to make sure Elwell and his FAA quickly decide that the MAX is safe for takeoff by delaying or stonewalling Congressional and other investigations.

The compliant Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, under Senator Roger Wicker (R-MS), strangely has not scheduled anymore hearings. The Senate confirmation of Stephen Dickson to replace acting chief Elwell is also on a slow track. A new boss at the FAA might wish to take some time to review the whole process.

Time is not on the side of the 737 MAX 8. A comprehensive review of the 737 MAX’s problems is a non-starter for Boeing. Boeing’s flawed software and instructions that have kept pilots and airlines in the dark have already been exposed. New whistleblowers and more revelations will emerge. More time may also result in the Justice Department’s operating grand jury issuing some indictments. More time would let the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, led by Chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) dig into the failure of accountability and serial criminal negligence of Boeing and its FAA accomplices. Chairman DeFazio knows the history of the FAA’s regulatory capture.

Not surprising on June 4, 2019, DeFazio sent a stinging letter to FAA’s Elwell and his corporatist superior, Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao, about the FAA’s intolerable delays in sending requested documents to the Committee. DeFazio’s letter says: “To say we are disappointed and a bit bewildered at the ongoing delays to appropriately respond to our records requests would be an understatement.”

The FAA and its Boeing pals are using the “trade secret” claims to censor records sought by the House Committee. When it comes to investigating life or death airline hazards and crashes, Congress is capable of handling so-called trade secrets. This is all the more reason why the terminally prejudiced Elwell and Bahrami should step aside and let their successors take a fresh look at the Boeing investigations. That effort would include opening up the certification process for the entire Boeing MAX as a “new plane.”

The Boeing-biased Elwell and Bahrami have refused to even raise in public proceedings the question: “After eight or more Boeing 737 iterations, at what point does the Boeing MAX 8 become a new plane?” Many, including Cong. David Price (D-NC), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the FAA’s budget, have already questioned the limited certification process.

Heavier engines on the old 737 fuselage changed the MAX’s aerodynamics and made it prone-to-stall. It is time for the FAA’s leadership to change before the 737 MAX flies with vulnerable, glitch-prone software “fixes”.

Notwithstanding the previous Boeing 737 series’ record of safety in the U.S. during the past decade – (one fatality), Boeing’s bosses, have now disregarded warnings by its own engineers. Boeing executives do not get one, two, three or anymore crashes attributed to their ignoring long-known aerodynamic engineering practices.

The Boeing 737 MAX must never be allowed to fly again, given the structural design defects built deeply into its system.

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Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us! 

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