US senators press officials on FAA’s oversight of Boeing

FAA’s acting administrator Daniel Elwell is questioned about new anti-stall counter-measure on 737 Max

An employee working on a Boeing 737 Max 8 at the Boeing plant in Renton, Washington. Photograph: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

An employee working on a Boeing 737 Max 8 at the Boeing plant in Renton, Washington. Photograph: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times

 

US Senators have pressed top US officials on the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of Boeing and a controversial safety system linked to two crashes in five months of the company’s top-selling 737 Max aircraft.

The lawmakers questioned FAA acting administrator Daniel Elwell about a new anti-stall counter-measure on the 737 Max that investigators suspect malfunctioned, contributing to the October 29th crash of a Lion Air jet in the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia and possibly a subsequent crash of an Ethiopian Air flight on March 10th.

Mr Elwell, in his first public response to weeks of controversy, said that the FAA initially retained oversight over the aircraft’s Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) certification because it was a new system. Later, after the agency became more comfortable with it, it allowed Boeing employees delegated by the FAA to sign off on designs to make final approvals.

Mr Elwell disputed reports that the FAA allowed Boeing to do “self-certification”, urged caution about drawing conclusions to accident investigations that were not completed, and insisted the agency would allow data to drive its response.

Flight data from the Lion Air jet indicated that the anti-stall counter-measure repeatedly pushed the aircraft’s nose down before pilots lost control. Less than five months later, a second 737 Max crashed in Ethiopia, resulting in dozens of nations grounding the airliner.

Certification

The crashes have put Boeing and the FAA under scrutiny, with multiple investigations into the agency’s certification of the 737 Max and its reliance on FAA-designated company employees to certify the safety of much of the aircraft.

Mr Elwell emphasised that the FAA’s aircraft certification process has existed in some form for decades, including the involvement of companies in safety-approval work. That “delegation” is under scrutiny amid questions about whether FAA gave Boeing too much leeway with the 737 Max.

Mr Elwell said if the FAA had to certify all aircraft it would take 10,000 engineers instead of the current several hundred, and $1.8 billion for its new budget.

And in more bad news for Boeing, the World Trade Organisation said on Thursday that the US had ignored a request to halt subsidised tax breaks to Boeing as a 15-year-old transatlantic trade row edges towards tit-for-tat sanctions. – Bloomberg /Reuters