U.S. senators question regulators about reliance on Max 8 maker's own engineers for safety OK
U.S. senators sharply questioned regulatory officials on Wednesday about the Federal Aviation Administration's reliance on Boeing Co's engineers to certify the safety of the company's new 737 Max 8 aircraft, which was involved in two fatal crashes in the past five months.
The self-certification procedure, known as the Organization Designation Authorization program, came under scrutiny at a hearing in Washington of the Senate Commerce Committee's aviation subcommittee. Daniel Elwell, the acting FAA administrator; Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; and Calvin Scovel III, Transportation Department inspector general, testified at the hearing.
For decades, the FAA has delegated some authority for certifying new aircraft to the manufacturers, reducing government costs and, according to defenders of the program, speeding up the approval of new models.
Following the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft－an Indonesian Lion Air flight in October and an Ethiopian Airlines flight earlier this month－that killed a total of 346 passengers and crew members, the self-certification process has been characterized by critics as an overly cozy relationship between the FAA and the industry.
In his opening statement, Elwell said the FAA was "fully involved" in the certification of the Boeing 737 Max 8, including "133 of the 297 flight tests".
Elwell defended the agency's reliance on experts from aircraft manufacturers and said the current system had produced an unprecedented safety record in the United States.
Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, questioned the FAA's oversight of the Boeing 737 Max jet and said reliance on the aircraft manufacturer during certification of the aircraft's safety put "the fox in charge of the henhouse".
Blumenthal contended that Boeing rushed to get the 737 Max into the air to compete with Europe's Airbus and disregarded crucial safety features.
"There needs to be rigorous reform so the FAA is put back in charge of safety," he said. "The fact is that the FAA decided to do safety on the cheap, which is neither safe nor cheap," he said.
Senator Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, asked what it would take for the FAA to certify aircraft on its own.
Elwell said, "10,000 additional FAA employees and $1.8 billion" each year. He added that the European equivalent of the federal regulatory agency delegates more authority to a manufacturer's employees when certifying the safety of Airbus.
Elwell said the FAA conducts strict oversight of all manufacturers. "It's part of the fabric of what we've used to become as safe as we are today," he said.
Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, demanded a "yes" or "no" answer from Elwell on whether two safety options that airlines could decline to buy should have been mandatory on the Max aircraft.
Elwell declined to answer with a single word and said, "Safety is central to the agency's existence."
Some airlines chose to purchase an "angle of attack" system display for readings of two sensors and a "disagree light" to be activated if the sensors produce conflicting readings, while other airlines did not.
Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air reportedly declined to buy the two add-on safety devices.
Scovel, the Transportation Department inspector general, said his office plans to revise its oversight of aircraft development by July.
"Over the years, FAA has increasingly shifted toward working with industry to meet shared safety goals," he said. "For example, FAA now delegates more of its aircraft certification to approved manufacturers through its congressionally authorized Organization Designation Authorization program or ODA. However, my office has identified weaknesses with FAA oversight of ODA. For example, in 2015 we reported that its oversight was not based on risk."
Senators questioned the safety of Boeing's anti-stall system, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. The system was installed because Max jets have bigger engines mounted closer to the nose of the plane than older Boeing 737s, changing the plane's aerodynamics.
If the nose of the plane rises, threatening a stall, the anti-stall system automatically points the nose of the plane down to gain speed. The system can be shut off by flipping a switch on the throttle console between the pilot and co-pilot.
The "angle of attack" sensor built into the Max aircraft measures the amount of lift generated by the wings. The device warns pilots when there is too little lift, potentially stalling the plane, then points the nose of the plane down to gain speed.
Information contained on flight recorders for the Indonesia and Ethiopian planes has not been released, but analysts say the pilots may not have known how to turn off the anti-stall device after it pointed the nose of the plane down, and that may have been a factor in the crashes.
On Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao testified before the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on her department's 2020 fiscal year budget.
When asked by Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, about the cooperative relationship between the FAA and Boeing regarding safety certification, Chao said that while the relationship is necessary, she was "concerned about any allegations of coziness".
"The FAA is the one that certifies," Chao said. "The FAA does not build planes. … But this method of having the manufacturer also be involved in looking at these standards is really necessary because once again the FAA cannot do it on their own."
At a news conference on Wednesday at a Boeing plant in Renton, Washington, Mike Sinnett, the company's vice-president for product strategy, said he didn't see a need to overhaul the company's development of aircraft.
He called the new Max software "more robust" but also said the upgrade does not mean the original design was inadequate.
The upgraded anti-stall system will be activated by input from two sensors rather than one. The system's power will be limited so that the pilot can pull back on the control column to override the system if the plane's nose is pointed down.
Sinnett said a new training system for pilots on upgrades to the anti-stall system has been "provisionally approved".