The first of what will likely be many congressional hearings into two catastrophic overseas crashes of Boeing’s new 737 Max jets began Wednesday with senators focusing on how federal safety regulators delegate work to the manufacturers they oversee and how they react after accidents happen.
The Senate’s aviation and space subcommittee, led by Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, will question the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification process for the 737 Max 8 and 9, and the March 13 decision to ground the planes, which came after other airlines and nations had already done so.
Along with the FAA’s acting administrator, Daniel Elwell, the panel will hear from the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, Robert Sumwalt, and the inspector general for the Department of Transportation, Calvin Scovel.
Elwell told reporters earlier this month that he grounded the 737 Max aircraft after enhanced satellite data showed similarities between the March 10 crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and the Oct. 29 crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia. The Ethiopian Air crash came six minutes after takeoff and killed 157 people; the Lion Air crash came 13 minutes after takeoff and killed 189.
Two crashes within five months of a plane first put into service in May 2017 sparked questions about how closely the FAA oversaw development and testing of the 737 Max.
After investigations showed the two airliners both climbed and dove several times before crashing, scrutiny has focused on a new feature in the 737 Max known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which is designed to force the plane’s nose down if a sensor indicates the flight angle is too high and could lead to the plane stalling. Critics have said proper training for pilots in how to respond when the system is triggered should have been ordered.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg said March 17 that a software update begun after the Lion Air crash would be issued “soon.” A company spokesman said the change would incorporate more inputs about the flight angle and limit the number of commands issued to the stabilizer to push the nose down.
Boeing’s role as a leading United States manufacturer, whose efforts to sell aircraft overseas is often promoted by officials including President Donald Trump, is an added factor in the debate over federal oversight.
A 2003 law directed the FAA to develop a framework known as Organization Designation Authorization through which approved companies were given authority to issue certifications on behalf of the FAA, according to a report issued Monday by the Congressional Research Service.
“Congress has generally supported FAA’s ODA framework, and the FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 included language intended to reduce certification delays and reduce restrictions on ODA holders,” the CRS report noted.
Certification is needed for the design and type of aircraft, the company’s ability to produce it reliably, and the airworthiness of the finished product.
“Boeing, for example, has authority to do both type certification and production certification work, in addition to airworthiness certification on behalf of FAA,” the CRS said.
Boeing spent more than $70 million on lobbying since 2015, and it is also a contributor to the campaigns of members of the committees that regulate it, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.
As an unsuccessful candidate for president in 2016 and then in an intensely competitive re-election race in 2018, Cruz received $61,025 in contributions from Boeing employees and political committees since 2015, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That ranks him No. 1 among members of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, on which Cruz is chairman of the aviation subcommittee.
Also receiving notable amounts were Sen. Maria Cantwell of Washington state, the ranking Democrat on the full committee, with $56,845; Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the ranking Democrat on the aviation subcommittee, with $28,739; and Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, with $11,900.
Four other committee members tied with $10,000 each: the full committee chairman, Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican; Republicans Jerry Moran of Kansas and Deb Fischer of Nebraska; and Democrat Brian Schatz of Hawaii.
Schatz, a member of the aviation subcommittee, said in a brief interview he wants to use Wednesday’s hearing to understand the FAA’s process for approving new software deployment and ordering more pilot training.
“I don’t intend to try to turn this into a gotcha situation, but I do want to understand how self-certification works and why the FAA was, relatively speaking, silent during the process,” Schatz said.
He’s not alone. The DOT inspector general has questioned FAA’s oversight of self-certifying companies in the past, and Scovel has begun an investigation into the approval of the 737 Max.
DOT Secretary Elaine Chao said Monday that she was creating an independent committee to review the way the FAA certifies new aircraft. That panel’s interim chairmen, until more members are appointed, will be retired Air Force General Darren McDew and former Air Line Pilots Association president Lee Moak.
House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Peter A. DeFazio, said at a hearing Tuesday he wants the FAA have outside experts weigh in before 737 Max planes are allowed to fly again.
The Oregon Democrat also said he planned to send detailed requests for data to the department later this week, and touted the committee’s whistleblower option in urging any FAA or Boeing employees with relevant information to contact lawmakers.
“We plan to dig deep into the issues surrounding the recent accidents over the coming weeks and months,” DeFazio said. “Tragedies like these should not happen.”
Ahead of Wednesday’s hearing, Cruz and Sinema both declined to comment. Cruz’s office said the hearing has attracted interest beyond the subcommittee membership and members of the full Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee are expected to participate.
While stressing it was Cruz’s hearing, Wicker told reporters he was curious what role Ethiopia played in the investigation after the crash of Flight 302. Asked if he agreed with DeFazio about the need for independent certification before 737 Max planes could fly again, he said he was not sure because he believed “the FAA was the gold standard internationally.”
Asked if he remained confident about the gold standard after the crashes, Wicker replied: “Yes. I think it’s good to ask the questions. I still think the FAA is well-run and reliable. But we’ll ask those questions and we’ll see. Some new facts may come out, you never know.”
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