Chao defends delayed 737 Max decision, to House appropriators

The FAA’s handling of the crash raises questions about how the agency operates

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao arrives for the Senate Appropriations Committee Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies Subcommittee hearing on the proposed Transportation Department budget for FY2020 on Wednesday, March 27, 2019. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao defended to House appropriators the administration’s decision not to immediately ground the Boeing 737 Max after an Ethiopian Airlines crash last month, even as other countries did so right away.

While Chao was appearing before the House Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee to defend the administration’s budget request for her agency, Chairman David E. Price, D-N.C., and ranking member Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., both said they wanted to understand more about the Federal Aviation Administration's process for certifying the model of the Boeing plane.

The Trump administration has been criticized for taking three days before grounding the planes after the crash that killed 157 people.

[FAA administrator defends decisions on Boeing 737 Max]

Price said the FAA’s handling of the crash raises questions about how the agency operates and whether lawmakers can have confidence in its process for certifying new planes.

“We need full transparency,” he said.

Chao said the agency did not initially have sufficient data to justify grounding the model that was also involved in the Oct. 29 crash of Lion Air flight 610 in Indonesia.

“The FAA is a very fact-based organization, and when this crash occurred in the morning . . . the FAA saw no basis upon which to ground the planes,” Chao said.

But on March 13, the FAA received the evidence that seemed to parallel that of the Indonesia crash. “That was the first piece of evidence that the FAA received that caused them to review their previous decision,” Chao said, adding that the decision was based on fact, not speculation.

“The more basic issue is, if we cannot specify how these planes were grounded, what would be the reason for ungrounding them?” Chao said.

She told lawmakers she has asked the agency’s watchdog and formed a special advisory committee to conduct probes.

“Let me emphasize that the FAA will not approve Boeing’s proposed changes until the FAA is satisfied that it’s safe,” Chao said. “The department’s goal is to ensure public transit in aviation safety.”

Watch: Six experts tell Senate committee what’s what on data privacy

Gateway project

Chao also was pressed about the White House’s decision not to seek funding for the Gateway project, which would replace a century-old bridge and tunnel connecting New Jersey and New York.

The White House called for a 19.2 percent cut to the Department of Transportation’s fiscal 2020 budget. The White House recommended funding the agency at $21.4 billion, down from $26.5 billion Congress approved in a spending package (PL 116-6) in February. That did not include money for the Gateway project, a priority for many lawmakers in the two states.

Some lawmakers from the region, including New York Democrat and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, have accused the Trump administration of stalling the project as revenge for Democratic opposition to a U.S.-Mexico border wall.

[Boeing faces increasing political pressure to ground 737 Max 8]

“By neglecting to include even one cent for the Gateway project, the administration is neglecting upgrades to its own assets as the aging and crumbling Hudson tunnel is owned by Amtrak,” House Appropriations Chairwoman and New York Democrat Nita M. Lowey said. “Instead of paying attention to the urgent reality that an unplanned closure of the Hudson project would be disastrous for our economy and disrupt the lives of hundreds of thousands of daily commuters, your administration has made a political decision that endangers the safety of travelers who pass through that tunnel every day."

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a New Jersey Democrat, said the Trump administration has taken steps to stop the program from going forward, including by allegedly delaying the completion of an environmental impact statement.

“I hate to tell you, the impact statements take a very long time,” Chao said, adding that the project is not eligible for federal funding.

The administration has said the projected does not qualify for federal funding because both states haven’t put up their share.

“Your claim that New York and New Jersey aren’t committing enough funding for this project ignores congressional direction in the fiscal 2019 spending bill that specified that federal loans which do get repaid, count as local share of funding,” Lowey said.

While Trump has repeatedly promised massive investments in infrastructure, the budget outline underscores the administration’s assertion that the federal government shouldn’t be “the primary funder” of the nation’s transportation systems.

Congress will ultimately make the final decision on how the agency is funded in the Transportation-HUD spending bill.

“When our current infrastructure is in such desperate need of repair, preparing for the future must mean ensuring continuity of service and the sustained safety of infrastructure right now,” Lowey said. “Frankly, I am unimpressed by your budget request.”

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.