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Former NTSB Chairman On FAA Hearing


So why after two deadly crashes of 737 Max planes did the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration keep that type of plane in the air when other countries had grounded it? And does the maker of the plane Boeing have too cozy a relationship with U.S. regulators? These are just some of the questions acting FAA Chief Dan Elwell is likely to get when he testifies in the Senate today. James Hall has plenty of experience investigating plane crashes, also testifying before Congress. He chaired the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001, and he joins me this morning.

Thanks for taking the time.

JAMES HALL: My pleasure. Thank you.

GREENE: So what would be your biggest question if you were asking the questions in the Senate subcommittee hearing today?

HALL: Well, I would hope that Mr. Elwell will bring the manufacturing and certification records that are required to be maintained by Boeing in regard to how this aircraft was certified with a single-point failure and with a safety feature that became a add-on that you had to purchase from Boeing in order to increase the safety of the aircraft. These are significant safety issues. And I hope that in this situation we won't go through the normal dance in Washington, D.C., in which this is tucked away in a commission, and the general public does not end up having information as to exactly what brought this - these two tragedies about.

GREENE: I just - I want to make sure we understand what you're talking about and don't get too, too technical. But are you saying there are documents that Boeing has showing that they're - that the company and, potentially, the FAA knew that there were some problems, some of the very problems that may have caused these accidents, and that they certified the aircraft anyway?

HALL: I'm saying as part of the investigation that is underway by the inspector general, as well as the investigation that will be - or the hearings that will be conducted by the House Committee under Chairman DeFazio, that there should be records that need to be carefully examined as to how these decisions were made and who they were made by.

Of course, it has been discussed - I have been speaking on this issue for some period of time - that the process that we presently have is a self-certification process by the manufacturer of the safety of the aircraft and that it's that process that needs to be held up to the light to see exactly what decisions were made and by whom they were made. And in order to do this completely, you don't need to go to the top of Boeing and the FAA, where these decisions were made. You need to go to the rank and file of Boeing and the FAA who raised concerns about this aircraft during this process.

GREENE: There was a report in The Seattle Times last week talking about the safety analysis for the automated flight control system in these planes, which is something that's very much in question here, and that the company had produced the document - Boeing - that had what is seen as significant flaws now. Is - I mean, that is sort of to a layperson just stunning. Is the...

HALL: Well, the important thing for the layperson to know is that you pay a tax every time you fly that funds about 90 percent of the oversight that FAA provides on safety of these aircraft. So this is not a strange system nobody can understand. You're paying for it.

GREENE: But does the - I mean, does the FAA have the money and the resources it needs to do this kind of oversight, or is the reality that they - they're under a lot of pressure to turn some of the oversight to - over to the manufacturer? Like, is that just something that sort of they have no choice?

HALL: Well, what has happened is that these decisions have been made in commissions and rulemakings dominated by the industry in Washington, D.C. And these decisions now need to be reviewed in light of these two fatal accidents, where almost 300 souls lost their lives, and the failure - Boeing or the FAA - to take appropriate action as soon as this first tragedy occurred because it appears that they had knowledge of some of the problems that - with this system because they had a safety feature that you paid extra for to provide additional safety for the system.

GREENE: Now, I...

HALL: That is not how the system is supposed to work.

GREENE: I asked some of these...

HALL: We're supposed to have a safe airplane in the sky. And, again, we're paying for it through our ticket taxes.

GREENE: I asked some of these very questions to...

HALL: So if the FAA has oversight problems, they need to address them because - or return us our money.

GREENE: I asked some of these very questions to Dan Elwell, the acting head of the FAA, who's going to be testifying today. I mean, he said that the agency does not have a cozy relationship with Boeing and regulates them in a way where the priority is safety. He also said that the FAA is an agency that is based on data, and they very much make their decisions, including keeping those planes in the air, based on data. I mean, is - are we just supposed to not believe the head of the main regulatory agency in the United States?

HALL: Well, my experience of 30 years in Washington, D.C., is the same Ronald Reagan had - you know, trust but verify. And when bad things happen, you need to verify if what he is saying is correct. I certainly question that there's not a cozy relationship. All anyone has to do is look at the revolving door in Washington, D.C., and this agency and the industry to realize that there is a cozy relationship. Now, the question is, is that cozy relationship having an adverse impact on the safety decisions being made?

GREENE: All right. And a lot of these questions will be asked in the Senate today.

James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, thank you so much.

HALL: My pleasure.

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