Note: this article, featuring our Deputy Director of Legislation Irvin McCullough, was originally published here.

Udall, Senators Introduce Comprehensive Bill To Break Up Cozy Relationship Between FAA And Aviation Industry

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) along with Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, introduced comprehensive legislation to improve safety for aviation passengers by revitalizing oversight of the aviation industry.

The Restoring Aviation Accountability Act would reform the federal government’s role to implement strong safety standards for and oversight over the aviation industry in the wake of two Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes – Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 – that resulted in the deaths of 346 people.

Udall has been an advocate of strong oversight and accountability in aviation safety, calling for the first Senate aviation safety hearing in years following the 2018 after the engine failure of a Southwest Airlines flight that caused the death of Jennifer Riordan, a beloved member of the Albuquerque community, and pushing for subsequent FAA action to ensure safer airplane engines.

In October 2019, Udall pressed then-CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenberg, to hold the company accountable for its “cozy” relationship with FAA regulators and demonstrate clear concrete steps to reform a lax safety culture. Udall and Blumenthal sent a letter to Muilenberg following the October hearing, demanding that Muilenberg clarify his testimony about Boeing’s response to the crashes and effort to hide the significance of the MCAS system from FAA officials.

The Restoring Aviation Accountability Act effectively reverses the provisions enacted by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Reauthorization Act of 2018, which allowed the aviation industry to regulate many of its own safety certification processes. As a result, Boeing’s automated system MCAS, which has been widely recognized as the cause of the deadly Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes, was never fully analyzed by the FAA while Boeing downplayed its risks.

“The two tragic Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes revealed substantial weakness in the FAA certification process and a cozy culture with industry that pushed speed and profit at the expense of safety. This utter debacle cost hundreds of lives and billions of dollars—proving that we cannot rely on aircraft manufacturers to regulate their own safety standards.” said Udall. “The American people expect the FAA to be tough, independent and uncompromising when it comes to their safety, and this new bill would restore integrity in the FAA’s certification process while restoring the flying public’s faith in American aviation. I hope the Senate Commerce Committee can come together and approve a strong bill in the near future to protect all people who use air travel to visit their families, conduct business, and see the world.”

This legislation is supported by a number of aviation industry groups, including the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), Government Accountability Project (GAP), the Association of Flight Attendants (AFA), and the Transport Workers Union of America (TWU).

“The Restoring Aviation Accountability Act of 2020 upgrades aviation whistleblowing protections to parity with all other federal whistleblowing statutes passed in the last two decades. Beyond implementing an incentive system for reporting and ensuring individuals aren’t gagged from reporting wrongdoing, the bill offers best practice retaliation protections for an expanded class of whistleblowers, and in certain cases allows these folks to make their case before a jury of their peers. The Government Accountability Project is proud to endorse this legislation and heartily recommends its passage. We thank Senator Blumenthal and his staff for their dedication to protecting and encouraging overseers’ eyes and ears on the ground and in the air,” said Irvin McCullough, Deputy Legislative Director of the Government Accountability Project.

“ALPA applauds Senator Blumenthal for his work on the Restoring Aviation Accountability Act of 2020. This bill is a safety-first measure that makes a number of improvements in the aviation system, including aircraft certification, delegated authority and the oversight of the FAA’s certification process. In addition, the legislation more directly involves those on the front of lines of keeping our skies safe – airline pilots – in the aircraft certification process. ALPA looks forward to working with other safety-minded leaders like Senator Blumenthal to see this bill enacted into law,” said president of the Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l Capt. Joe DePete.

“TWU was the first union to call for grounding the MAX because our members saw how unsafe the system that approved that plane was. This bill would address those systemic problems and help ensure that airline workers and travelers have a safe experience on our aircraft,” said TWU International President John Samuelsen.

“The type certification process needs serious correction as highlighted by the 737 MAX accidents. AFA joins concerns expressed by Congress, the NTSB, DOT IG, and others. It is critical to establish a commission to recommend a transition from the ODA program,” said Sara Nelson, International President of the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA. “Aviation regulation is often written in blood – we must learn and change to protect future lives and our industry. We support the legislation introduced by Senators Blumenthal, Markey and Udall.”

The Restoring Aviation Accountability Act would:

  • Establish a commission to review the current FAA safety delegation program (ODA) to determine and evaluate if alternative certification programs would provide more robust oversight.
  • Increase the accountability measures of the current safety oversight system by requiring that pay, compensation, and bonuses for officers and employees of the FAA are not contingent on delivery of airplanes, the number of aircraft certified, or the number of audits completed.  Prohibits safety certification system employees of manufacturers from having performance standards tied to delivery of aircraft.
  • Bolster whistleblower incentives and protections in the aviation industry for employees, contractors, and subcontractors of aircraft manufacturers, aircraft repair stations, and the FAA by providing whistleblowers with access to court for a jury trial and monetary incentives for information that leads to a successful resolution of a complaint.