This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma.
U.S. senators from both parties confronted Boeing’s chief executive last month demanding accountability for two tragedies involving the aircraft company’s 737 Max 8 planes.
Senators grilled Dennis Muilenburg over how a pair of mass-casualty crashes in Indonesia in the fall of 2018, and in Ethiopia in March, could have been avoided.
It’s good to see elected officials direct their ire where it counts. The trouble is, many of these senators, including Washington Democrat Maria Cantwell, are investigating a deregulation problem they helped create.
According to The New York Times, it was Cantwell who submitted a paragraph in the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 that directed the agency to give manufacturers the right to approve anything deemed “low and medium risk” on an airplane. Granted, these items included parts for interiors, like bathrooms and seats, not computer software. But it contributes to a culture of self-policing.
To be clear: the Max 8 planes were certified under old rules. But the most recent Reauthorization Act, coupled with President Donald Trump’s deregulation crusade, have made it easier for airplane manufacturers to bypass FAA review.
Northwest-born Boeing, the largest aviation company in the U.S., lobbied hard for this deregulation, claiming the FAA certification process was impeding its efforts to be globally competitive. And lawmakers caved.
Shocking testimony from Muilenburg during hearings before the Senate transportation committee provided further evidence that the Max 8 disasters resulted from production taking precedence over safety. In both crashes, a faulty sensor caused software to seize control and push the planes into a fatal nosedive before pilots could recover. According to a Seattle Times report, several FAA technical experts said in interviews that managers prodded to accelerate the certification process.
Some pilots flew the Max 8 after receiving only one hour of iPad training; many didn’t even know the plane was equipped with an automated anti-stall system called Maneuver Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
Pilots were told the new planes were just like the older 737s. Training on how to override MCAS didn’t happen, a mistake Boeing executives should have remedied before the two crashes.
During the committee hearing, Cantwell pressed Muilenburg: “Did you test the reliability of the sensors in general? Did you test the reliability on a single sensor? Did you consult with the pilots on the lack of guidance on MCAS in the flight manuals?”
Muilenburg, who received a compensation package of $23.4 million last year, said “more information to pilots doesn’t always equate to improving safety.”
But that excuse doesn’t fly. We second what Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told Muilenburg: “You set those pilots up to fail.”
The truth is, lawmakers played a part as well. As long as regulation remains a dirty word and the industry is allowed to police itself, pilots and passengers remain at risk.
Washington members of Congress have a long tradition of cozy relations with their state’s largest private employer — Norm Dicks wasn’t known as “Mr. Boeing” for nothing — and our state’s junior senator is no exception. According to opensecrets.org, Boeing contributed more to Cantwell’s 2018 reelection campaign ($57,922) than it gave any other member of Congress last year.
Now Cantwell, the top Democrat on the transportation committee, is pulling back on a company that for too long has torpedoed ahead without crucial oversight. Last week she introduced legislation calling for increased regulation related to automation found in commercial aircraft cockpits.
New legislation won’t bring back the 346 lives lost in the doomed Boeing Max 737 planes, nor bring much comfort to family and friends who grieve them. But it may get a step closer to restoring public trust in an industry, and lawmakers, who have sorely let us down.