The Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) decisionmaking and its role within the Trump administration bubbled to the forefront this week after the agency reversed course and grounded Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 planes amid safety concerns and mounting political pressure.
The agency has long been considered a global leader in flight safety. But it lagged behind its international counterparts in temporarily suspending the Boeing jets after a Max 8 plane was involved in a crash for the second time in recent months.
The incident underscored the importance of the FAA, which has gone without a permanent leader for more than a year. Trump previously considered his personal pilot for the job before moving on, and now has reportedly landed on former Delta Airlines executive Steve Dickson for the post.
A White House official told The Hill that acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell has the president's confidence.
The president, who launched the long-defunct Trump Shuttle airline service and took credit for aviation safety in 2017, earlier this week said that planes “are becoming far too complex to fly.”
He has portrayed the grounding order as a precautionary safety measure.
“I hope it's going to be for a short period of time,” Trump told reporters Thursday in the Oval Office.
The FAA has defended its decisionmaking, insisting that it did not take action until it had the data to justify grounding planes. Agency leaders briefed members of the House Transportation Committee on Thursday morning about the grounding order.
While lawmakers have overwhelmingly supported the decision, they have indicated the FAA and Boeing won't escape congressional oversight.
“We’re going to go through this, we’re going to continue to collect the data,” Rep. Sam GravesSamuel (Sam) Bruce GravesCorporations seek to rebuild bridges with GOP objectors ahead of midterms GOP election objectors rake in corporate cash Airlines defend delays, cancellations amid scrutiny from Congress MORE (R-Mo.), the ranking member on the House Transportation Committee, said on Fox Business Network. “The House and the Senate will take a look at this, but hopefully we can get this restriction lifted and get the flying public back on track as soon as possible.”
Reps. Peter DeFazioPeter Anthony DeFazioTop Democrats call on AT&T and Verizon to delay 5G rollouts near airports On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood Democrats confront rising retirements as difficult year ends MORE (D-Ore.) and Rick LarsenRichard (Rick) Ray LarsenTop Democrats call on AT&T and Verizon to delay 5G rollouts near airports FAA: New manufacturing issue discovered in undelivered Boeing 787 Dreamliners Newest Boeing 737 Max takes first test flight MORE (D-Wash.), the chairmen of the House Transportation Committee and its Subcommittee on Aviation, respectively, said they plan to conduct “rigorous oversight to get to the bottom of the FAA’s decisionmaking process.”
On the Senate side, Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzHillicon Valley — Senate panel advances major antitrust bill Senate panel advances bill blocking tech giants from favoring own products Lawmakers press Biden admin to send more military aid to Ukraine MORE (R-Texas) said following the grounding order that he will hold a hearing with the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation and Space to address concerns surrounding two recent crashes involving the Boeing 737 Max 8.
Countries began grounding the planes soon after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed on Sunday, killing all 157 people on board. In October, 189 people were killed when Lion Air Flight 610 crashed off the coast of Indonesia. Both planes were Max 8s.
The FAA said in its grounding order that new satellite images and data gathered and analyzed Wednesday at the site of the Ethiopian Airlines crash “indicates some similarities” between the two flights “that warrant further investigation of the possibility of a shared cause for the two incidents that needs to be better understood and addressed.”
But the decision came too late for some lawmakers, dozens of whom had pressed the agency to ground the planes. By the time the FAA acted, the U.S. was the last major country where Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 planes were still flying.
“It does look bad. It looks suspicious that one day after all these other countries have announced the grounding that the United States announces it, but I truly believe that it was because of this new information and this new data,” said Jeff Guzzetti, who retired last month as the director of the FAA’s accident investigation division.
“I think they made the right decision, and I don’t know how much of that was driven by the political pressure,” he added.
This week marks the second time this year the agency has been an area of concern for lawmakers. A number of politicians, industry officials and union leaders worried during a recent 35-day shutdown that mass furloughs at the FAA could affect airline safety. The agency eventually recalled roughly 2,200 inspectors and engineers before the shutdown ended.
Media reports in recent days suggested the shutdown and issues with the 737 Max planes were linked, and that the lapse in funding led to a delay in software development for the aircraft. Elwell said Wednesday that was not the case.
A former military and airline pilot who has worked closely with Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine ChaoHogan won't say if he will file to run for Senate by Feb. 22 deadline Top Republicans pressing Hogan to run for Senate Biden returns restores tradition, returning to Kennedy Center Honors MORE, Elwell has led the agency in an acting capacity since January.
The agency downplayed any concerns over the lack of a permanent leader.
“The effectiveness of the FAA’s robust aircraft certification and safety oversight systems do not depend on any individual or group of individuals,” the agency said in a statement to The Hill.
Barring the imminent nomination and confirmation of a full-time replacement, Elwell will be tasked with navigating the agency's review process to get the Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 back in the air in the U.S., and with restoring any lost trust sustained in the last week.
“I do think it will damage their reputation, but it will not be deserved,” Guzzetti, who offered praise for Elwell, said of the FAA. “It is unfair for FAA to take a hit, because I know they acted in a responsible manner and not capriciously.”