Congress Questions Officials on Boeing 737 MAX and FAA Regulations
March 29, 2019
In response to the two recent Boeing 737 MAX plane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation and Space held a hearing Wednesday, March 27, titled, “The State of Airline Safety: Federal Oversight of Commercial Aviation.”
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), chairman of the subcommittee, began the hearing by saying, “It is truly unfortunate that today’s hearing is necessary and I wish we didn’t have to be here today, but our first priority in aviation must always be the safety of the flying public.” With the witnesses representing the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Department of Transportation (DOT), and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the subcommittee discussed the current standards and processes for commercial aviation, as well as potential improvements.
As the agency responsible for overseeing safety in the busiest and largest airspace in the world, the FAA is often considered the gold standard for aviation safety internationally. After the Boeing 737 MAX crashes and delayed grounding of the fleet by the US agency, however, the FAA is being met with public distrust and doubt from Congress on a public stage.
Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) brought up the Organizational Designation Authority (ODA), which is a longstanding regulatory procedure for inspecting airplanes and design changes that give manufacturers like Boeing the authority to conduct some of their own inspections. Reforms to FAA’s regulatory and certification process have been ongoing since 2004, and among some calls for change, legislators have also repeatedly endorsed the current ODA system as recently as last fall. Now, they are examining the system for flaws.
Daniel Ewell (Acting Administrator, FAA) defended the ODA and explained that in the course of certification such as the one the 737 MAX went through, the FAA determines which aspects of the certification can be delegated. To begin, manufacturers are only certified to regulate the familiar, well-known systems. As the process goes on, the FAA then certifies the expertise of the manufacturer under strict review to take on more parts of the certification process. In the case of the 737 MAX, the FAA retained a new automated system suspected to be linked to the crashes, the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), for review until staff was properly certified, rather than giving Boeing the authority from the get-go.
“Is there more we need to do?” Sinema asked, probing for policy suggestions from the panelists to ensure that planes are safely regulated. The panelists didn’t have any specific policy suggestions but agreed to think further about the question and report back.
Elwell repeatedly stated throughout the hearing that the FAA had made the decision to ground the planes on their own, with the support of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. Sen. Richard L. Blumenthal (D-CT) asked repeatedly for specifics of conversation with Chao and President Trump surrounding this decision, and Elwell adamantly defended it was not his place to share that conversation.(Ed. Note: While most authority over DOT activities is legally vested in the Secretary, aviation safety regulation is vested in the FAA Administrator, per 49 U.S.C. §106(f).)
The FAA took longer to ground the airplanes than other regulators across the world. Elwell defended this as well, saying they were “on the hunt for data,” searching for a link between the two crashes. “We may have been, I think someone said, the last country to ground the aircraft, but the United States and Canada were the first countries to ground the aircraft with data, for cause and purpose.” Grounding a fleet of aircraft with a definable reason gives regulators something by which to unground the aircraft eventually. This is something other countries failed to do and some have even approached the FAA for help navigating the ungrounding process.
Other than the flight pattern, investigators believe both the Ethiopia and Indonesia crashes stem from the aforementioned MCAS automated system, intended to prevent the plane from stalling. Boeing updated the 737 airframe with the new MAX version in 2017, which came with design changes to the airframe which tended to push the nose of the plane up. To account for that, the MCAS was added to bring the nose down automatically.
Sinema asked why information about the MCAS system was not required in pilot training for the 737 Max. In response, Elwell explained that a Flight Standardization Board of experts, pilots and engineers determine if the handling characteristics of a new aircraft require flight training.
The FAA “put pilots in these simulators and fly the aircraft that’s being amended and the new aircraft and after many scenarios, flights in all regimes of these pilots, there was a consensus opinion from the pilots, European, American and Canadian pilots, that there was no market difference in the handling characteristics of these two aircraft,” he said.
“That is what we need to determine what kind of flight training was not or needed. And there was by the recommendation of the Flight Standardization Board — understand this is a board that has been used dozens and dozens of times — their unanimous opinion was flight training was not needed, and they didn’t flight test the MCAS per say because the MCAS is a device that is supplement to another system.”
Airline Pilot Training
When prodded by Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS) about what the pilots in Indonesia and Ethiopia should have done when the plane based on the nose down input, neither Elwell nor Sumwalt–both longtime pilots–had an answer.
Cruz asked, “Mr. Elwell, you told Senator Sinema that part of certification was based on pilots flying simulators in multiple different scenarios: did any of those scenarios include Angle of Attack (AOA) sensors malfunctioning and reporting the wrong data?” The AOA is meant to detect the plane’s angle in the sky.
Elwell answered, “Sir, I can get an answer for you on that but I don’t believe so.”
Blumenthal said his feeling was the training should and could have been better for these pilots. “Would you agree?” he directly asked Elwell.
Elwell responded by explaining that the FAA is looking into the training leading up the accidents, but that foreign accidents bring investigative challenges. “Our responsibility of continuous operational safety means that if anything comes out of these investigations that goes directly to training, we would know about it so that we could relay that information to the pilots and the system we oversee. Of course, we don’t oversee and regulate the training in foreign practices. But we do audit the civil aviation authorities of countries that fly to the US and this is an area we will look into carefully.” He went on to say the FAA’s credibility can make change worldwide and raise the safety bar and said, “despite what you read in the press, I believe the FAA still is the gold standard.”
In his opening statement, Elwell had said, “the FAA will go wherever the facts lead us in our pursuit of safety,” concluding, “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.”
As Sinema stated, “It’s imperative that we quickly fix any problems within FAA’s oversight, evaluation, and approval processes to ensure safety in American skies, restore trust, and maintain US global leadership in aviation and aviation safety.”
An archived recording of the hearing can be viewed here.