FAA Head Defends Certification Process

But Stephen Dickson added that the process and regulations that the FAA uses "are continuously evolving."

In this April 10, 2019, file photo, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane rolls toward takeoff before a test flight at Boeing Field in Seattle.
In this April 10, 2019, file photo, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 airplane rolls toward takeoff before a test flight at Boeing Field in Seattle.
AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration is defending his agency's approval of a troubled Boeing plane while leaving open the possibility of changing how the agency certifies aircraft.

Stephen Dickson made the comments Monday in Montreal, where he and other top FAA officials briefed aviation regulators from around the world on the agency's review of changes that Boeing is making to the 737 Max. The FAA said a senior Boeing official also gave a technical briefing.

Dickson, who was sworn in last month, said again that the FAA has no timetable for considering Boeing's changes to the Max.

The grounding of the plane has increased scrutiny around the FAA's oversight of companies it regulates, Dickson said. He said FAA took the same thorough approach that has consistently produced safe planes.

But, he added, the process and regulations that FAA uses "are continuously evolving." He invited other regulators to make suggestions on FAA's review of the Max and its certification system.

The plane has been grounded since March after the second of two accidents that killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia. Chicago-based Boeing is nearing completion of its changes to the plane, including an update to an automated flight-control system implicated in both crashes.

The FAA was the last regulator to ground the plane and is likely to be the first to let it fly again. However, the likelihood of a long gap between FAA action and approval by other regulators seems to be easing, which would be a victory for Dickson and the FAA.

Patrick Ky, head of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, told a French aviation publication that a European decision could follow within a few days of an FAA approval and under the same conditions. Just a few weeks ago, the European agency was suggesting that it might make demands on Boeing beyond what the company is planning, including requiring additional sensors, which could delay the plane's return in Europe.

The Wall Street Journal reported that in a draft report, Indonesian authorities investigating the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air Max off the coast of Java have homed in on design and oversight failures. The newspaper, citing anonymous sources, said investigators are also pointing out pilot errors and faulty maintenance as factors.

Boeing declined to comment.

In Montreal, Dickson said, "Accidents in complex systems rarely are the result of a single cause. Rather, they often happen due to a complex chain of events and interaction between man and machine." Safety improvements should cover aircraft design, production, maintenance and operation, he said.

Some of Dickson's comments were strikingly similar to language used by Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg in the weeks after the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Max soon after takeoff from Addis Ababa.

"As in most accidents, there are a chain of events that occurred," Muilenburg said in late April. "It's not correct to attribute that to any single item."

Some critics viewed that as blaming pilots in two developing countries.

"Boeing's strategy may be, 'This wouldn't have happened in the United States or the Western world because the pilots are so well-trained,' and, 'Yeah, it may have been a problem with the aircraft, but it was also bad pilots,'" said Brian Kabateck, a Los Angeles lawyer suing Boeing on behalf of families who lost relatives in the Lion Air crash.

Separately, a $50 million fund for compensating families of people killed in crashes of Boeing 737 Max planes began taking claims Monday, with a deadline of Dec. 31 for families to submit applications.

Boeing is providing money for the fund, which works out to nearly $145,000 for each person who died in the crashes. Dozens of families are suing the Chicago-based company, which said relatives won't have to drop their lawsuits to get compensation from the fund.

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