Congressional leaders said the news that Ethiopian Airlines pilots followed Boeing’s instructions before the March 10 fatal crash of a 737 MAX underscored the importance of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) agreement to seek outside advice before approving any fixes to the jet.
“This information only reinforces serious questions about the integrity of the flight control systems on the Boeing 737 MAX,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said in a statement Thursday in reaction to the disclosure by Ethiopian officials.
“I think it is important that Boeing and FAA not rush out a fix,” added DeFazio, noting that he’d called for such an independent review. “They must ensure that any resolution to the potential problems that led to these accidents is holistic and robust.”
The FAA announced this week the formation of a review panel headed by former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Christopher Hart comprising a team of experts from the FAA, NASA and international aviation authorities. The group will conduct a comprehensive review of the certification of the automated flight-control system on the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, as well as its design and how pilots interact with it, the FAA said.
Both DeFazio and Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, who sits on the Senate’s Aviation and Space subcommittee, endorsed the FAA’s plan.
Cantwell also said she’d be “seeking further briefings on this report from FAA and NTSB.”
The FAA has come under fire by critics who allege the agency delegated too much of the certification process for the Boeing 737 MAX to the company, spurring congressional requests for information and a public hearing last week that’s likely to be followed by others.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation and the Department of Transportation’s Inspector General has launched an audit.
Boeing is working on a software fix and associated pilot training that must be approved by the FAA.
The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), which represents 61,000 pilots from 33 U.S. and Canadian airlines, issued a measured statement in response to the Ethiopian finding.
“As the world’s largest nongovernmental aviation-safety organization, ALPA’s experts are currently reviewing the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 preliminary report,” the organization said. “Our union respects the proven, unbiased, and objective investigatory process that has been developed at the terrible cost of lives lost.”
ALPA called the process the “most effective and efficient means” to collect and analyze data from accidents and drive regulatory and policy changes, if needed.
“While flying remains the safest mode of transportation in the world — and ALPA pilots have been integral to this accomplishment — recent tragedies abroad remind us that there is still work to be done,” ALPA said of the Ethiopian Airlines flight and the fatal crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX in October. “ALPA will continue to work closely with investigative authorities, regulators and stakeholders in ensuring that as an industry, we improve safety and strengthen our aviation system.”
Elsewhere, in the social media world, the discussion was less measured, continuing a weekslong debate over where to lay blame for the crash. Anonymous pilots traded theories in professional forums as some online questioned Western suggestions that the pilots on the doomed flights on Ethiopian and Indonesian airlines were unskilled or not well-trained.
“Nobody is questioning that what they faced was a challenging situation,” one user wrote Thursday on the Professional Pilots Rumour Network, a forum frequented by pilots from around the world, suggesting the pilots should have found a way to resolve the plane’s problems. “But these aren’t recreational pilots out on a Sunday afternoon. These are professional revenue pilots, in theory trained to a very high standard.”
Other users called criticism of the pilots premature and mocked a perception that American pilots could have avoided the crash.
“It may be likely that crew could have done more, but that does not excuse Boeing for having put them in the situation in the first place,” one person wrote. “No pilot should be placed in the position that an unreliable safety system is trying to crash the aircraft and it is unclear how to recover or even promptly diagnose precisely what is happening.”
“Ah, here it (is) again,” wrote another, “the fable of the superior US airline pilot.”
Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Group CEO Tewolde GebreMariam made clear he fully supported the pilots, issuing a statement Thursday praising “our pilots’ compliances to follow the emergency procedures and high level of professional performances in such extremely difficult situations.”