By David Shepardson
(Reuters) - The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Sept. 16 will hold a hearing to consider a bill to strengthen oversight of aircraft certification following two fatal Boeing Co 737 MAX crashes.
The measure seeks to eliminate the ability of aircraft makers like Boeing to unduly influence the certification process. It marks the most significant step toward reforms following the 2018 and 2019 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people and sparked demands to change how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves new airplanes.
Boeing and FAA both declined to comment.
U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chair Roger Wicker, a Republican, and ranking member Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, introduced the proposal in June that would grant the FAA new power over the long-standing practice of delegating some certification tasks to aircraft manufacturer employees. It would give the agency authority to hire or remove Boeing employees conducting FAA certification tasks and allow the FAA to appoint safety advisers.
Wicker on Thursday released another bill, the FAA Accountability Enhancement Act, that would create an FAA Ombudsman office and an Office of Professional Responsibility and "reorganize the Aviation Safety Whistleblower Investigation Office, and bolster misconduct investigations and discipline management to enhance accountability across the agency."
In a survey released in August, FAA safety employees reported facing "strong" external pressure from industry and raised alarms that the agency does not always prioritize air safety.
Boeing is working to win regulatory approvals to resume 737 MAX commercial service since the plane was grounded worldwide in March 2019, plunging the Chicago-based company into a crisis that has since compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Boeing also faces lawsuits and an ongoing criminal probe.
The Senate legislation would grant new whistleblower protections to workers at airplane and parts manufacturers. It would also require the FAA to create a new safety reporting system for employees to detail concerns anonymously.
While victims' family members applauded proposed reforms, they also demanded critical aircraft systems - like the MCAS flight control system linked to both crashes - be approved by the FAA, not just Boeing, and that manufacturers be required to re-certify new aircraft derived from earlier models.
Representative Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Reuters in July he planned to introduce FAA certification reform legislation in September, saying the Senate bill was a good start but did not go far enough.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing Chizu Nomiyama and Leslie Adler)