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UPDATE 1-U.S. FAA's top safety official stepping down effective June 30

(Adds more on safety issues)

WASHINGTON, June 2 (Reuters) - The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) top safety official said Wednesday he will step down effective June 30.

Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety since July 2017, had faced criticism from some U.S. lawmakers and family members of those killed in two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes that led to the plane’s 20-month grounding, which was lifted in November. Officials said it was Bahrami’s decision to leave the agency.

The FAA said it will begin an immediate search for a successor. Deputy Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Chris Rocheleau, a longtime FAA employee, will serve as interim head of the Office of Aviation Safety.

“This was not an easy decision,” Bahrami, who worked at the FAA in various positions for 30 years, told staff in an email. “I’ve been blessed with an incredible career, and now it’s time for me to spend more time with my family and focus on my next chapter.”

In December, Congress passed sweeping legislation to reform how the FAA certifies new airplanes. It also boosts FAA oversight of aircraft manufacturers, requires disclosure of critical safety information and provide new whistleblower protections.

A House of Representatives report released in September said the two fatal 737 MAX crashes “were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”

An FAA survey released in August found some FAA employees reported facing “strong” external pressure from industry and raised alarms that the agency does not always prioritize air safety.

The survey quoted one anonymous employee as saying that the message was, “Don’t rock the boat with Boeing.”

The United States has not had a fatal U.S. passenger airline crash since February 2009 and only one fatality due to a U.S. passenger airline accident in that period.

Bahrami’s email said the FAA had “established a solid foundation to respond to congressional mandates and recommendations stemming from investigations and certification reviews after the two tragic 737 MAX accidents.” (Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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