Key U.S. senators back requiring FAA disclosure of risk assessments after fatal plane crashes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee will vote on Wednesday to require the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to quickly disclose risk assessments after fatal air crashes in a bid to significantly tighten industry oversight.

FILE PHOTO: Committee ranking member Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) speaks during an oversight hearing in Washington, U.S. June 24, 2020. Alex Wong/Pool via REUTERS

Senate Commerce Committee chairman Roger Wicker, a Republican, and the committee’s top Democrat Maria Cantwell, said on Friday they had agreed on a bipartisan series of sweeping reforms to how the FAA certifies new aircraft, according to the 70-page joint proposal seen by Reuters.

The measure marks the most significant effort toward adopting reforms since the 2018 and 2019 Boeing 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people. It includes additional reforms since the senators first proposed legislation in June.

Wicker said the changes “strengthen the aircraft safety certification process, bolster whistleblower protections and reduce opportunities for undue pressure, and promote international collaboration on aviation safety efforts.”

Boeing Co BA.N and the FAA did not comment.

In the aftermath of the October 2018 Lion Air 737 MAX crash, the FAA conducted a risk assessment that calculated that without a fix to a key safety system called MCAS there would be an estimated 15 additional fatal accidents over the lifetime of the 737 MAX.

“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,” said House Transportation Committee chairman Peter DeFazio in December 2019, adding the FAA’s analysis “never saw the light of day beyond the closed doors of the FAA and Boeing.”

The Senate bill would require disclosure of any future risk assessment by FAA to Congress within seven days in a briefing by the administrator and a separate review by the Transportation Research Board of the assessment’s methodology.

Cantwell said the bill would strengthen aircraft certification laws and upgrade technical expertise.

New changed production certification rules would require “a comprehensive integrated systems safety analysis which would have helped uncover problems like the ones with” MCAS, Cantwell said.

The bill grants the FAA new power over the long-standing practice of delegating some certification tasks to aircraft manufacturer employees. It also would create new whistleblower protections and bolster misconduct investigations and discipline management at the FAA and require a review of FAA certification expertise.

Boeing is working to win regulatory approvals to resume 737 MAX commercial service since the plane was grounded in March 2019.

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Sandra Maler and Tom Brown