For the full story on the Senate subcommittee hearing, see “FAA chief stands behind Boeing 737 MAX certification, confirms it delegated part of review to Boeing itself.”
Where things stand:
- SENATE QUESTIONS: A U.S. Senate subcommittee is questioning regulators about safety in the airline industry in the wake of two 737 MAX crashes. Here’s our preview. Stay here for live updates.
- CERTIFICATION: The Seattle Times published an investigative story earlier this month that detailed how managers at the Federal Aviation Administration had pushed their engineers to delegate wide responsibility for assessing the safety of the 737 MAX to Boeing itself. The issue of delegation and the overall certification process is expected to be a focus of the hearing.
- GROUNDING: Lawmakers are also expected to ask about the FAA’s process for grounding the MAX; the agency acted only after other countries around the world had halted flights. Boeing is now seeking approval for a software change to the plane, which it first proposed to the FAA seven weeks before the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Boeing detailed its proposed changes to software and training today, while simultaneously defending its original design.
- MORE: See more of our 737 MAX coverage here. Got a sensitive news tip? Start here.
The hearing has concluded. (Correction: Robert Sumwalt’s name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post).
Elwell said pilots are routinely trained on how to deal with a runaway horizontal tail. “It’s a memory item,” he said.
Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts says critical safety features shouldn’t be optional or “a la carte” when sold to carriers, and that he will introduce legislation to address the issue.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut says he will push legislation to put the FAA back in charge of safety, saying the current system essentially left “the fox in charge of the hen house” on the 737 MAX.
Elwell, the FAA chief, said eliminating the delegation process used by the industry would require about 10,000 more FAA employees and that the agency’s certification office would need an additional $1.8 billion.
FAA chief Elwell says the FAA needed reliable data before grounding the 737 MAX and acted when it got “refined data” showing links between the two crashes.
Elwell, the head of the FAA, told lawmakers that his agency delegated review of the MCAS safety system to Boeing itself.
The MCAS system, now suspected as a potential factor in two crashes, was a new feature on the 737 MAX to help the plane avoid a potential stall that could be caused by the larger engines on the jet.
Elwell said the FAA initially retained the MCAS system as something to scrutinize independently, but then later delegated it to Boeing under a program called Organization Designation Authorization (ODA).
“Initially, as a new system or a new device on the amended type certificate, we retained the oversight of that – then over time released that to the ODA when we had the comfort level and the oversight and we examined it thoroughly,” Elwell said under questioning from Sen. Cantwell. “We were able to assure that the ODA members at Boeing had the expertise and the knowledge of the system to continue going forward.”
A Seattle Times investigation earlier this month detailed how managers at the Federal Aviation Administration had pushed their engineers to delegate wide responsibility for assessing the safety of the 737 MAX to Boeing itself.
Scovel, the inspector general, testified that the U.S. “gold standard” for aviation regulation has been “shaken,” and that his investigators want to know why additional pilot training wasn’t required for the 737 MAX and why the FAA was the last agency worldwide to ground the plane.
FAA chief Elwell said he doesn’t believe simulator tests in the FAA certification process examined a situation in which an angle-of-attack sensor would fail.
Elwell said the issue of an angle-of-attack sensor triggering the MCAS safety system on the 737 MAX presents just like a runaway-stabilizer situation. He said that’s a problem pilots would know about and that actions to defeat the problem would be the same as past training.
“It is indistinguishable to the pilot,” Elwell said.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, tells the committee that his agency is examining the certification process for the Boeing 737 MAX as part of its assistance in the crash investigations.
Then, Calvin Scovel, inspector general of the Department of Transportation, identified “weaknesses” in the FAA’s oversight of airplane manufacturers in his opening testimony.
Daniel Elwell, the acting administrator of the FAA, said in his testimony that the FAA is resolute in maintaining the U.S. air transportation system as the gold standard of the world.
Elwell said his agency welcomes external review of the FAA’s process. And he said the organization will continue to take action based on the facts.
“The 737 MAX will return to service for U.S. carriers only when the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is appropriate to do so,” Elwell said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington began her introductory remarks by referring to the “horrible human tragedies” that brought about the hearing and the need to get a full picture of what led to the crashes.
“Safety remains paramount,” she said. Her questioning later in the hearing will be closely watched because the Boeing 737 MAX is manufactured in Renton and because of the company’s huge influence in Washington state.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz says the crashes of Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft and reports about the certification process of the airplane “have badly shaken consumer confidence.”
Cruz, a Republican from Texas, opened the hearing into aviation safety Wednesday by outlining broad concerns about the crashes and raising questions about the regulatory structure of the Federal Aviation Administration.
“It is truly unfortunate that today’s hearing is necessary,” Cruz said.
In 15 minutes, the U.S. Senate’s Subcommittee on Aviation and Space is set to convene its hearing titled “The State of Airline Safety: Federal Oversight of Commercial Aviation.” We’ll be posting live updates as the hearing progresses.
Lawmakers have indicated that much of the hearing will focus on concerns raised by two recent crashes of 737 MAX planes that killed a total of 346 people.
Those testifying at the hearing include Daniel Elwell, the acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration; Calvin Scovel, the inspector general of the Department of Transportation; and Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
This subcommittee, which is led by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, also expects to hold another hearing in the future that would include Boeing.