By Cat Hofacker|May 2020
U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio’s first year as chair of the House Transportation Committee was marked by the deadly Boeing 737 MAX crashes; his second will be consumed with the coronavirus pandemic and its aftermath. With the air transport industry facing an unprecedented challenge, DeFazio must balance his role as a longtime advocate with the strong oversight he believes FAA and the industry need. He plans to continue the committee’s investigation into the certification of the MAX, and he expects FAA to complete the tasks related to safety assigned to it in the last reauthorization act. I spoke with DeFazio by phone from his home in Oregon.
IN HIS WORDS
Oversight versus advocacy
I think those two things fit together perfectly. When we write laws or FAA or the FTA [Federal Transit Administration] or anybody promulgates rules, it’s our duty to see that those rules conform to the law. And then it’s our duty to see that those rules are followed by the impacted industries, which are a broad range of industries under our jurisdiction. I think that is something, unfortunately, that Congress has overlooked. When I was first in Congress, every committee had an oversight and investigations subcommittee. Newt Gingrich did away with all that. And I still don’t have a dedicated oversight and investigation subcommittee, but I do have now a dedicated oversight and investigation staff — albeit only three of them, but they’re very good. I could use more to do more oversight or we could go back to the prior model. We do have a global oversight committee under Rep. Carolyn Maloney [D-N.Y.], but they’ve got to cover the whole government. The individual committees of Congress, particularly in my case, Transportation and Infrastructure, do need to be more focused on this critical function. It would make for a better government and a safer country.
CARES Act: not a repeat of 9/11 aid
Airlines constitute obviously a very significant portion of our economy, and in terms of aviation, a large part of our export economy. Anything that has a dramatic impact on that industry is going to hit very hard in the country. That’s why we fought so hard in the CARES Act to get an aviation package. I was, it was determined not to do it the way it was done after 9/11. They got assistance and then when they burned through the assistance, declared bankruptcy, took away their workers’ pensions, busted the unions. In the case of United [Airlines], it was particularly egregious. There was a jerk there named Tilton, Glenn Tilton, and the day before he took away everybody else’s pension he got a $4.5 million special account that couldn’t be touched in bankruptcy. [Editor’s note: United Airlines said the funds were part of Tilton’s original contract, meant to compensate for retirement money he gave up when he joined United in September 2002.] So I was on a conference call early on with the CEOs in their conference rooms. We began discussion and negotiations [with other members of Congress], and we came up with a package that I think should be a model for all industries.
I actually added a third component of the airline aid; didn’t make it, but the third component would ultimately have been a very ambitious plan to begin to reduce carbon pollution. They agreed to a plan that wanted to have them all carbon neutral by 2025 — not ideal, but until we develop and distribute sustainable fuels, that’s a good step. In the final package, Mitch McConnell [R-Ky. and the Senate majority leader] made fun of that and made a point of taking it out, and secondly at the last minute, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey from Pennsylvania got inserted a provision to say that they could exercise warrants on those grants. We don’t want conditions on that. The loans, we certainly expect that the loans would be rated as to risk. There’s a whole host of questions Treasury asked about the loans at the outset. It didn’t ask those same questions about the grants at the outset. They have now asked all of the same questions about the grants, which doesn’t make sense since they already got that information on the loans. But no, the loans would definitely have a rate of return to the Treasury and I assume they would be risk rated. Whether it would just be an interest or whether there would be other interest in terms of preferred stock or something, that part of the bill was totally discretionary on the part of Secretary [Steven] Mnuchin.
The FAA’s to-do list
Obviously getting the MAX back in the air, for the airlines that had them on order or already bought them, is not as much of a pressing need at the moment. The FAA’s got a lot of things it’s got to get done, and that’s one of them. But before that, I’m really hopeful they’ll get the rule out on drones much more quickly because we have heard from companies that could be delivering medical supplies to areas by drone and other needs. We’re heading into the West Coast fire season. We’re going to need comprehensive rules on drones for that. So they’ve got to get the drone rule done and out as soon as possible. It would also be an ideal time for them to approve previously written rules. The FAA wrote the standards for secondary barriers [to cockpits] through a special committee years ago. They want, because of objections by the airlines, to start another lengthy process. It would be a great time for them just to implement those earlier recommendations and put a few people to work. Putting the secondary barriers on the airplanes has been too long delayed. Then it would be a great time for the FAA to recognize that we were very definitive about the rest duty time [of flight attendants]. The airlines would have plenty of time now to redo their schedules and accommodate the new rest duty time; that would keep the schedulers busy who don’t have much to schedule right now.
737 MAX investigation on hold
We issued an interim report, and we felt we had enough with the interim report to move forward with ODA [Organization Designation Authorization] reform, but we have not reached the ultimate conclusions to exactly what went wrong in some places. The FAA has not been particularly forthcoming with a lot of communications that we’ve asked for. So far as we know, we have everything from Boeing, although every once in a while, they surprise us. And we’re still conducting interviews, so it’s ongoing. We know enough to legislate, but we do want to come to a more conclusive report in the future.
Reforming aircraft certification
We were working on an ODA reform bill. We had shared it and were in discussions with the Republicans just before all this came down. I’ve got to say that the CARES package and everything we did, work and in the space of infrastructure, that bill took precedence, but the process does need to be reformed; it failed clearly. The Boeing [Aviation Safety Oversight] office in Seattle was essentially captive of the company at the management level. Even when the technical specialists, seven of them, nonconcurred with a decision — and they were upheld through two appeals — one single manager, apparently without ever contacting the Washington, D.C., office, decided to overrule them. That’s totally unacceptable. We did a seven-hour interview with the head of safety [at FAA] and he reported to be absolutely clueless about anything that went on with the MAX. Never heard anything about it, wasn’t in the loop. There needs to be much more accountability throughout the FAA from the local office, regional office, to the head office and we’re going to fix that. I think we can fix the mixed system we have and make it work. No, we’re not going to get into every detail of every manufacturer with FAA employees.
Remote identification of drones
We’ve got to be able to arrest and prosecute the jerks who interfere in public safety and violate rules. It’s a small percentage of people, mostly hobbyists. And it took me many years to get preclusion removed up on the FAA on requiring remote ID. There is still some fighting back, particularly the toy manufacturers. That’s just got to get done, otherwise we can’t safely reintegrate. And if just one idiot flies a drone into a helicopter and causes a crash — or potentially, since we have yet to conduct the test — it’s assumed that even something as small as a quadcopter could cause uncontained failure of a jet engine. We’ve got to get the remote ID on that aircraft, all the drones in America, including all the ones that are beneficial. So we need to get that remote ID rule done. They [operators] have got to figure a workaround on the broadcasting requirements, but these things have to be identified just like every plane in the air has to have a transponder.
Returning to service post-coronavirus
There are certain requirements when a plane has been out of service that have to be met. We were dealing with that in terms of all the back planes that had been produced, some of which had been in service, many of which have been in service. And in that case, because of the particular problems with the MAX, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said the FAA was going to individually certify every plane, a very ambitious and time-consuming undertaking. In this case it doesn’t require full recertification, but there are certain procedures that have to be followed and it’s critical that we protect the workforce who can do that work.
On aviation, the most critical thing is the Airport Improvement Program is going to run out of money in a few months, which means that stalls the NextGen and other investments by the FAA, which would be very unfortunate. It would also mean limiting airport projects or capital expenses. There are terminals and runways and that, so that will be a major component. We did get $10 billion for the airports in the first bill, but they’re hemorrhaging way more than that in terms of lost revenues. So support to airports will be critical. I think the bill goes far beyond aviation in terms of infrastructure and investments in infrastructure.
I had a joint conference call with my ranking member, Sam Graves [R-Mo.] and all the members of the committee, both sides of the aisle. We laid out our agenda, made suggestions of things that we would like members to do and proposed that we think that we can do some oversight. We can do some briefings, certainly like with FEMA where we have a strong role, and others. I have had briefings there. So ongoing we’re doing briefings, we’re looking at moving more into oversight. We are writing bills remotely. We’ve set a deadline of May 1 for submissions for the Water Resources Development authorization for all the members of the House. So we are moving ahead with legislation. When we’ll be at a place to actually physically be together? I don’t know.
New norms for Congress?
After 9/11 [then-Rep.] Brian Baird from Washington state said, “We need rules, we need rules for disasters, we need rules on how to reconstitute Congress.” Because if everybody in the House is killed, there will be no members of the House because you can’t be appointed to the House under the Constitution. So he was proposing both emergency measures and reconstitution-of-government measures. I supported him strongly. We got blown off and now the folly of that is very, very apparent. We had to get 218 people to D.C. because of one jerk who was going to object to a voice vote on the CARES package. And that meant we had to have a quorum present in the chamber to go ahead with a voice vote, and that was not ideal at the time, obviously. I flew across the country, more than 218 of us got there. But the question of how the rules can be changed, that is very much an ongoing intense discussion.