Rep. Rick Larsen on the 737 Max recertification

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The grounding of the 737 Max in March put aviation safety, and the FAA, in the spotlight. Airlines editor Robert Silk spoke with Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the chair of the House aviation subcommittee, about the panel's ongoing investigation into the Max certification process as well as about the FAA's progress in implementing congressional mandates related to airline consumer protection.

Q: How is your committee's investigation into the 737 Max certification process progressing?

Rep. Rick Larsen
Rep. Rick Larsen

A: Our goal is to look at any lapses that occurred in managing the certification process and the development of the training. We're continuing to get records on a rolling basis from Boeing and a little less from the FAA. So we're pushing the FAA to get us more records so we can do a thorough investigation. The community oversight staff continues to pore over those documents, and I suspect that later in the fall we'll have Boeing in to testify at a hearing.

Q: Are you satisfied with the pace that Boeing and the FAA are providing records?

A: Boeing has been better than FAA at getting records to the oversight staff on our committee. I'd like to see FAA pick it up a little bit. And maybe they will, now that they are through their leadership change with [Stephen] Dickson in as FAA administrator and [Daniel] Elwell settled back into deputy administrator.

Q: Is understaffing a concern at the FAA?

A: One thing I'll be looking at is whether or not the certification process has enough oversight staff dedicated to it.

Q: The Office of the Inspector General is looking into the agency's oversight of maintenance at Allegiant, Southwest and American and its oversight of aircraft evacuation procedures. Are you concerned that the FAA is too cozy with airlines?

A: It's not my biggest concern. My biggest concern with regard to the FAA's relationship with airlines is whether or not the FAA is moving forward on implementing the consumer safety provisions of the [2018 reauthorization] bill we passed with strong bipartisan support and was signed by a Republican president. That is going to be a subject of hearings in late September. We're going to ask the FAA where they are in the progress on several of these consumer safety issues that we put in the bill.

Q: On which issues is their progress a concern?

A: The 10-hour rest rule for flight attendants. The remote identification for UAS [drones]. Seat size and pitch is another. Lavatory access for disabled folks is another. I'm sure that there will be many others that the subcommittee members will bring up.

Q: Have you heard anything about the FAA's progress on the seat width and pitch measure, setting minimums by this October? That was one that got a lot of attention after passage last October.

A: No, I haven't. And that's related to evacuation time, as well. And that is why it will be on the list that we provide to the FAA to bring an answer for. 

Q: And the flight attendant rest rule, expanding minimum time between shifts to 10 hours from the current eight, that is many months overdue already. 

A: Yeah, and I don't know that it could have been clearer to the FAA that we wanted a 10-hour rest rule for flight attendants. We thought it was very clear in the law that we passed, not only that we wanted it but there didn't have to be much interpretation about what we wanted or when we wanted it. 

Q: Is it your sense that these items are backed up because the FAA and DOT have a lot on their plate, or is it because of the administration's stated aversion to regulation?

A: I think we'll probably hear two issues. One, we'll hear government shutdown [earlier this year]. That put most everything on hold at the FAA and therefore delayed the work. And second, I think we'll hear that FAA attorneys have either a different view or are putting up legal hurdles or steps to get things done that they believe they need to get answered.

Q: Specifically, do you think that the agency could be delaying because the administration's policy is that it doesn't want to do these things?

A: I'll let other people project on that. I know what Congress said they wanted. I know what we put in the bill. And I know what we expect.

Q: On another subject, what's your position on hiking the airport Passenger Facility Charge cap?

A: I support it for the infrastructure investment that we can get at our airports. Infrastructure means jobs. And I think that we need a larger infrastructure package which includes roads bridges highway; which includes water and sewer; and it ought to include airports as well and lifting the PFC cap to a reasonable amount ought to be part of an infrastructure package. If not, it can move forward on its own.

Q: Do the airlines have a point when they argue that we don't need a cap increase because there's all kinds of money already out there for airport construction.

A: If they expand their point to say there's all kinds of money already out there that airports can borrow for longer terms and put more money into interest payments as opposed to infrastructure, that's kind of really what the airlines argument is when you expand it out all the way. Their argument would result in airports putting relatively more money in paying interest than they would if there is a PFC increase and I'm not sure that's the best use of airport money.

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