FAA faces questions about Boeing at two hearings

Transportation officials on Wednesday pledged to make changes to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) oversight process as the department grapples with the fallout of two fatal crashes in recent months involving Boeing 737 Max 8 planes.

During public hearings, two Senate subcommittees raised concerns about the safety certification process and the decisionmaking that surrounded the aircraft, which was involved in Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crashes that killed a total of 346 people. It marked the first time leaders of the Department of Transportation and FAA have testified over their handling of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft. 

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“Not only have the recent crashes shaken the confidence of the public, but the questions that have been raised in the aftermath about oversight of aircraft manufacturers, the certification process for planes and the close relationship between industry and regulator threatens to erode trust in the entire system,” Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTed Cruz knocks New York Times for 'stunning' correction on Kavanaugh report 2020 Democrats call for Kavanaugh to be impeached Warren: Kavanaugh 'should be impeached' just like Trump MORE (R-Texas) said in prepared remarks.

In an effort to improve the oversight process, inspector general Calvin Scovel told the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation and Space that the FAA will introduce a revamped version of the Organization Designation Authorization (ODA) program by this summer. The program allows plane manufacturers to self-certify some aspects of airplane development. 

Scovel said the updated oversight process will develop new criteria for evaluating companies’ training and self-audit procedures.

The changes were announced as some senators wondered whether the lines between regulators and industry officials had been blurred over the years, undermining the certification process.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) harshly criticized the current system that puts manufacturers partially in charge of certifying the safety of the aircraft, saying that there needs to be “rigorous reform so that the FAA is put back in charge of safety.”

FAA acting Administrator Daniel Elwell defended the current system, saying that if certification were left to the FAA, it would require thousands of extra employees and close to $2 billion in costs.  

Boeing and federal Transportation officials have endured weeks of scrutiny over their handling of the Boeing 737 Max plane, which was involved in an Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10 and a Lion Air crash in October. The more recent crash alarmed lawmakers and industry stakeholders about the safety of the planes and the agency’s delay in grounding them compared to other countries.

Trump administration officials have sought to temper the fallout. In addition to the changes outlined Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine Lan ChaoTrump awards Medal of Valor, civilian honors to responders in Dayton and El Paso shootings Democrats ask Chao to promote airline price competition Trump administration takes step to relax truck driver time regulations MORE ordered a formal audit from Scovel’s office of the certification process for the 737 Max and established a committee to review the FAA’s certification process for all new aircraft.

Members of the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation and Space largely zeroed in on the Boeing 737 Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), software that has been at the center of initial reports about the recent crashes. 

Investigators believe that the MCAS, an automated flight control system, was activated during the Lion Air flight after acting on erroneous data and forced the plane to dive down. The MCAS system is also thought to have played a role in the Ethiopian Airlines crash, with authorities finding “clear similarities” in the descensions of the planes. 

Cruz, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee, pressed Elwell over whether there was information on the MCAS included in a course pilots are required to take before flying the 737 Max.

“There was not specific instruction on the MCAS, to my knowledge,” Elwell responded.

Scovel said an audit of the 737 Max certification process would include looking into why MCAS material wasn’t included in the training.

Boeing, which has defended the quality of its products, said in a statement that it would make a safety tool known as the angle of attack disagree alert, which notifies pilots of differences in sensors outside the plane, standard on the 737 Max. Boeing said it would retrofit already manufactured planes with the feature.

A company spokesperson said officials would be “carefully monitoring” Wednesday’s oversight hearing, and that it would continue to work with federal agencies to improve safety. Senate Transportation Committee Chairman Roger WickerRoger Frederick Wicker The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation GOP lawmaker: 'Dangerous' abuse of Interpol by Russia, China, Venezuela Suburban anxiety drives GOP on guns MORE (R-Miss.) said he intended to hold a future hearing with non-government witnesses, including Boeing.

Questions about the 737 Max hung over Chao’s appearance on Wednesday before a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, which was intended to focus on the department's budget request for fiscal 2020.

Instead, multiple lawmakers peppered Chao with questions about the FAA’s safety protocols and its timeline for grounding the Max 737 planes.

She defended the delay in grounding the 737 Max aircraft, emphasizing that the FAA could not ground the planes until they had the data to justify doing so.

“The FAA is a very professional fact-based organization,” Chao said. “And they don’t make decisions that are too hasty. They take great pride in ensuring the safety of the entire world’s international travelers. Americans have always been the gold-standard of aviation safety and it is FAA who has built that reputation over time.”

But the FAA has taken a hit over its handling of the Boeing jet. It was the last major aviation agency in the world to ground the planes after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, and reporting has emerged since then further calling into question the rollout and continued use of the aircraft.

Sen. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) Manchin The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Trump, lawmakers consider app that would conduct background checks: report Conservatives offer stark warning to Trump, GOP on background checks MORE (D-W.Va.) lamented that it appeared the U.S. was “following the rest of the world” in waiting to ground the plane.

“That plane lost the confidence of the American traveling public because there were parents finding out where their kids [were] and what plane they were flying on,” Manchin said. “I just hope that we would react quicker the next time.”