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FAA misled Congress about its 737 Max safety inspectors, investigation finds

Boeing 737 Max airplanes are stored next to Boeing Field in Seattle in June. Aviation agencies grounded the model in March after a pair of deadly crashes.
Boeing 737 Max airplanes are stored next to Boeing Field in Seattle in June. Aviation agencies grounded the model in March after a pair of deadly crashes.
(Stephen Brashear / Getty Images)

U.S. aviation regulators misled Congress about a whistleblower’s allegation that many inspectors performing safety assessments on the now-grounded Boeing Co. 737 Max airplane weren’t properly qualified to certify pilots or assess pilot training, a government watchdog agency has concluded.

The Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that investigates whistleblower complaints, called Federal Aviation Administration assertions on the case “misleading” and said the FAA’s response to lawmakers “raises significant concerns.”

The charges became public in April when Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, issued a press release. At the time, FAA disputed the allegations, insisting in responses to Congress that its pilots were properly qualified.

The FAA pilots about whom qualification issues were raised are called aviation safety inspectors. They administer skill tests of other pilots and perform other duties, including sitting on groups called Flight Standardization Boards. Such a board was involved in approving the pilot training criteria for the 737 Max.

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The FAA, which disputed the findings Monday night, issued a second statement Tuesday with a stronger denial. “The FAA stands behind its response to Senator Wicker’s questions about the qualifications of Flight Standardization Board members,” it said in the latest statement. The agency’s communications to the lawmaker were cited in the Office of Special Counsel report.

The issue had no bearing on decisions about pilot-training requirements on the 737 Max, said an agency official who wasn’t permitted to speak about the matter and asked not to be named. All pilots who assessed Boeing’s jet were properly qualified to do so, the person said.

The Office of Special Counsel, however, sided with the whistleblower and said some internal FAA reviews had concluded the same thing. It found that 16 of 22 FAA pilots conducting safety reviews, including making decisions on the 737 Max when it came into service two years ago, “lacked proper training and accreditation,” according to the Office of Special Counsel letter to President Trump. The letter was first reported by the Washington Post.

The world’s 737 Max planes were grounded after two crashed — one in Indonesia in October and one in Ethiopia in March — and killed everyone aboard, a combined 346 people. Those crashes were “closely linked with crew training resources and familiarity with operational procedures” — which were under the authority of some of the improperly trained pilots, the letter said.


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