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Editorial: The FAA's failures

Lack of information can end in tragedy, especially for pilots charged with precious cargo in the air and on the ground. Buffalo learned that in 2009 and the rest of the world is learning it again in the aftermath of the recent crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets.

Among the factors linking those tragedies is the role of the Federal Aviation Administration, which too often seems more interested in promoting the aviation industry than it is in achieving its mission of providing “the safest, most efficient aerospace system in the world.”

The FAA has been credibly accused of being captive of the industry rather than its regulator. That criticism resonates in Western New York, where a 2009 crash killed 50 people. Under pressure from the victims’ families, Congress passed new laws to require more training and more hours of rest for pilots. The FAA sought to weaken them.

Now, the agency is under scrutiny for its role in clearing the Boeing 737 Max for use, even though Boeing sold as options safety features that might have prevented the crashes of a Lion Air flight in October and an Ethiopian Airlines flight this month. Everyone on both flights – 346 people – died.

What, in the FAA’s role in all of these events, speaks to the goal of creating the world’s safest aerospace system?

It’s true that any industry can be overregulated, but there is also this: Since Congress passed the new training regulations after the February 2009 crash of Colgan Flight 3407 in Clarence Center, only one person has died in nearly 100 million flights by U.S. passenger airlines. In the two decades before the law was enacted, 1,186 people died in U.S. commercial plane crashes. The law has saved lives.

Flight 3407 crashed because the pilot took the exact wrong action as the plane, flying in wintry weather, went into a stall. He was insufficiently trained and had failed three test flights early in his career.

Yet, like the airline industry, the FAA has been no friend to the 2010 law, dragging its feet on enforcing the rules and even urging Congress to weaken them. Congress has held fast, showing itself to be more interested in aviation safety than the FAA is.

What is more, the agency only recently began enforcing a rule it announced six years ago requiring pilots to practice in simulators how to react in stalls. The rule was enacted in response to the crash of Flight 3407.

Now, the FAA’s oversight is being called into question again over its approval of the Boeing 737 Max, which had been rushed into production for competitive reasons. Pilots had complained about insufficient training and on Friday, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., wrote to the agency’s acting administrator question the FAA’s approval procedures and its transparency.

“Although safety upgrades in response to these deadly crashes are a welcome first step, the fact that this change is being made now raises questions about why this important safety feature was not required by the FAA to be standard on the Boeing 737 Max series to begin with,” he wrote. Americans await an answer.

The FAA is also under scrutiny by transportation, justice and the House of Representatives transportation committee for various aspects of its oversight of Boeing and certification of the Max jet. These are important investigations that go to the heart of the FAA’s mission.

Yet, President Trump plans to nominate a former Delta Air Lines executive, Steve Dickson, to head the agency. His experience could certainly be useful, but only if he can function as an arms-length overseer rather than a mole for the industry.

It’s a distinction that Americans have an interest in determining and about whose answer they could justifiably hold a hard-won skepticism.

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