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FAA Administrator Defends Agency Before Congress In Wake Of 737 Max Debacle


The head of the FAA gave some startling testimony today before Congress. Administrator Steve Dickson spoke about the Boeing 737 MAX jet, the plane that was involved in two fatal crashes that together killed hundreds of people. He said the FAA knew about the problems with the 737 MAX before the second crash. The agency did an analysis that predicted more of the planes would crash, and yet the FAA let them keep flying. NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: After the crash of a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX jet in Indonesia in late October of last year, FAA safety analysts estimated that 15 more MAX planes would crash over the next few decades if Boeing didn't change its new automated flight control system, the MCAS system that repeatedly forced the Lion Air jet into fatal nosedives.


PETER DEFAZIO: Despite its own calculations, the FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public and let the MAX continue to fly until Boeing could overhaul its MCAS software.

SCHAPER: That's Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation Committee.


DEFAZIO: Tragically, the FAA's analysis, which never saw the light of day beyond the closed doors of the FAA and Boeing, was correct.

SCHAPER: A second 737 MAX crashed in Ethiopia in March. And only then did the FAA order all 737 MAX airplanes grounded. FAA administrator Stephen Dickson, who only joined the agency in August, tried to defend the decision.


STEPHEN DICKSON: You know, it's hard to Monday morning quarterback these things, as you know. And I believe that the individuals who were involved in making the decision were acting on the best information they had at the time. And we're...

JULIA BROWNLEY: But I'm talking about you...

DICKSON: ...Taking action.

SCHAPER: California Democrat Julia Brownley pressed Dickson on whether he would have made a different decision and grounded the MAX if he had been given that report.


DICKSON: With what I know now? Yes, I - yes.

SCHAPER: But Dickson still would not call the FAA's decision to only issue an advisory that didn't even mention the flawed flight control system a mistake. And that rankled lawmakers like Democrat Sean Patrick Maloney of New York.


SEAN PATRICK MALONEY: I think some of us would feel better if he showed a little more passion for this, sir. So I want to give you another opportunity at this.

SCHAPER: He, too, pressed Dickson to acknowledge that the FAA made mistakes in the initial certification of the 737 MAX and the aftermath of the two deadly crashes. Dickson continued to refuse to second-guess agency officials' decisions made before he came on board, but he did eventually acknowledge that the FAA failed to provide adequate oversight. He also acknowledged that the FAA is investigating whistleblower allocations of production problems, poor working conditions and shoddy workmanship created by intense pressure to ramp up production at Boeing's 737 factory outside of Seattle.


DICKSON: You have my commitment that we are looking into those problems, and we will continue to do so.

SCHAPER: The allegations were detailed later in the hearing by retired Boeing plant manager Edward Pierson, who says the production problems in the Renton, Wash. factory may have contributed to the crashes.


EDWARD PIERSON: I formally warned Boeing leadership in writing on multiple occasions, specifically once before the Lion Air crash and again before the Ethiopian Airlines crash, about potential airplane risk due to the unstable operating environment within the factory. Those warnings were ignored.

SCHAPER: In a statement, Boeing says Pierson's concerns were taken seriously but calls his suggestion of a link between that and the plane crashes completely unfounded. Meanwhile, the FAA's Dickson insists the system of aviation safety oversight is not broken. But he says the agency is working on improvements. As for when the 737 MAX will be certified to fly passengers again, the retired pilot says not until the plane's fixes have been completely and thoroughly reviewed and tested and he flies the plane himself, which won't happen until sometime next year.

David Schaper, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOARDS OF CANADA'S "LEFT SIDE DRIVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.