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Nation & World

FAA chief: Manuals should have told MAX pilots more about safety system

Federal Aviation Administration acting Administrator Daniel Elwell (center) testified Wednesday with FAA Aircraft Certification Service Executive Director Earl Lawrence (left) to the House of Representatives about the Boeing 737 MAX airplane.
Federal Aviation Administration acting Administrator Daniel Elwell (center) testified Wednesday with FAA Aircraft Certification Service Executive Director Earl Lawrence (left) to the House of Representatives about the Boeing 737 MAX airplane.

SEATTLE – The head of the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday he believes documentation on Boeing’s 737 MAX should have told pilots more about the safety system that’s suspect in two crashes that killed 346 people.

Daniel Elwell, the FAA’s acting administrator and a former commercial pilot, said in testimony before a congressional committee that he expects the FAA will amplify the description of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system so that pilots will be able to better respond to an anomaly.

“I, at the beginning when I first heard of this, thought that the MCAS should have been more adequately explained in the ops manual and the flight manual, absolutely,” Elwell said.

MCAS is suspected of playing a role in both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes, with the system pushing the nose of those planes down after getting faulty data from a sensor.

Elwell was also critical of Boeing’s handling of a cockpit warning light that would have alerted pilots of a problem with those sensors. While Elwell said the warning light was for the sake of maintenance, not flight safety, he said it took Boeing too long – 13 months – to notify the FAA about a software problem that was causing the indicator not to work properly.

“You have our commitment that we’re going to look into that and fix that,” Elwell told lawmakers.

Elwell defended the overall system under which the 737 MAX was certified. He described how the FAA was involved in test flights and in the safety analysis of the MCAS system.

Under the FAA’s delegation system, companies such as Boeing can appoint people to work as the FAA’s “authorized representatives” with the ability to issue certifications. A Seattle Times investigation earlier this month detailed how some representatives faced internal pressures and how the FAA’s new system means those representatives no longer report to the FAA but to Boeing managers.

Rep. Rick Larsen, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the House Aviation subcommittee, asked whether Elwell is looking to revert to the older system that gave the FAA more direct oversight of its representatives. Elwell said he’s waiting to see what various investigations and audits have to say.

“If we have robust oversight, and we have all the protections in place to guard against conflicts of interest or undue pressure, which I believe we currently have, it’s a good system,” Elwell said. “But it can always be made better.”

Larsen responded that he wonders whether the system has “over-evolved.”

Larsen began the hearing by saying it would likely be the first in a series of hearings about Boeing’s 737 MAX, which has been grounded after the two deadly crashes.

“The FAA needs to fix its credibility problem,” Larsen said. “The committee will work with the FAA as it rebuilds public and international confidence in its decisions, but our job is oversight and the committee will continue to take this role seriously.”

Some of the Republican members of the committee called for more scrutiny of other aspects of the flights, including the maintenance of the planes, the pilot experience levels and the pilot training programs. Louisiana Rep. Garrett Graves, the top Republican on the aviation subcommittee, praised Elwell for his leadership.

“No matter what other countries say, I’ve not seen anything that questions my confidence in the FAA’s safety judgment to date,” Graves said.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, the chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said Boeing “has yet to provide a single document” in response to the committee’s records requests. He said he’s hopeful they will provide the documents voluntarily.

Boeing has been working in recent weeks to develop a software update to the 737 MAX that would limit the power of the MCAS software.

Elwell said he expects Boeing to make its formal submission for a MCAS software update in the next week or so. He said the FAA will perform flight tests, conduct a thorough safety analysis and determine the level of training needed for the new software. Only after those things are established will the FAA allow the 737 MAX to fly again.

“We’re not going to do it until it’s safe,” Elwell said.


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