A 737 MAX 8 in front of the Chinese delivery center. China was the first country to ground the plane. (Boeing)
Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell is still confident in the Boeing 737 MAX, even as U.S. Senate aviation subcommittee chairman Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) says the aircraft's issues "threaten to erode trust in the entire system."
Two 737 MAX 8 aircraft have crashed since last October, killing 346 people. While investigations are ongoing, the similar circumstances surrounding the crashes have called into question the safety of the American-made plane. Over the course of two days following the second crash, regulators and carriers around the world grounded all 737 MAX planes, with the FAA being the final regulator to make the call.
Concerns over how the MAX and its maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) were certified, and why the FAA was slower to ground the 737 MAX than other regulators led the U.S. Senate to hold a hearing on the accidents and the agency's response.
"The fact of the matter is that these crashes and subsequent reports of how the 737 MAX was approved have badly shaken public confidence in how the 737 MAX was approved," Cruz said. "Trust is the currency of the realm. Trust of the flying public in the safety of the aircraft they step onto; trust of our international partners in the diligence and thoroughness of our regulatory bodies and, increasingly, trust of our regulatory bodies in the truthfulness of the data and certifications provided and performed by industry."
Speaking before the committee, Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovel said oversight and the Organization Designation Authorization ( ODA ) program is something his office is looking at as part of its investigation into the certification process of the 737 MAX.
“Over the years, FAA has increasingly shifted toward working with industry to meeting shared safety goals," Scovel said. "However, my office has identified weaknesses through FAA’s oversight of ODA."
Doing all certification in-house would require roughly 10 thousand additional employees and an additional $1.8 billion budget for the FAA's certification office, Elwell said. And the benefits go beyond budgets.
"The FAA and aviation community jointly identify system hazards," Elwell said. "This approach yields knowledge that we would not otherwise obtain. FAA aircraft certification has always relied on the exchange of information and technical data with industry. Some version of our certification process has been in place for over 60 years.”
EASA, which has the second-largest certification office in the world, relies more heavily on ODAs than the FAA, according to Elwell.
Still, many of the Senators expressed concern about the FAA being too "cozy" with industry, particularly after a Seattle Times report which indicated that safety engineers felt pressured to approve certifications for business reasons.
"The FAA decided to do safety on the cheap, which is neither cheap nor safe and put the fox in charge of the hen-house," Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said. "In its rush to produce that aircraft because of competition from Airbus, critical safety features were disregarded.”
Elwell maintained that the process was consistent with certification processes for other aircraft and is reliable to produce safe aircraft. More ODAs are possible in a case such as the 737 MAX airplanes because, rather than an original STC, the plane qualified for an amended type certificate as a new version of the 737. However, the "FAA was fully involved, including participating in 133 of 297 flight tests, some of which encompassed tests of the MCAS system," according to Elwell.
Boeing 737 MAX cockpit. (Boeing)
Sen. Jacky Rosen (D-Il.) suggested that there are "loopholes in the certification system" when a 2019 jet can be certified as simply an updated version of an aircraft originally certified in 1967, never needing to undergo an entirely new certification process along the way. Though not willing to commit to any conclusion, Scovel said that the certification process would be examined as part of his office's investigation.
Repeatedly throughout the hearing, Elwell attempted to correct what he saw as misunderstandings about the MCAS.
"It’s a sub-device to a system called the speed-trim system in the 737 NG," he said. "MCAS gives inputs to the flight controls when necessary in a very thin piece of the envelope so the yoke feels like it should. In this case, it made the MAX feel exactly like the NG to fly, so we gave it an amended type certificate."
The FAA determined that, because the 737 MAX felt like the 737 NG to fly and the MCAS was generally not noticeable to pilots in flight, it didn't require specific training or mention in training manuals, Elwell said. The FAA did release an airworthiness directive requiring that it be mentioned after the Lion Air crash.
Despite extensive reporting to the contrary, he said the way a pilot needs to deal with MCAS issues on the 737 MAX is identical to any other 737. According to National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt, in the Lion Air crash, pilots repeatedly pulled up on the yoke, but the system repeatedly undid their work, adjusting the plane of the nose back down. The appropriate process to take in the situation is called "runaway stabilizer trim" according to Elwell and, if confronted with a trim problem, any pilot should have that response drilled into them, he said, though he said he wasn't sure what the procedure on a 737 is.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt, who once served as a 737 pilot, said that when he flew the proper method was to pull up on the yoke, but it may have changed.
When asked why the 737 MAX was certified with a known angle-of-attack sensor that could occasionally report inaccurate information, Elwell downplayed the issue as being normal for the number of flights that happen on a daily basis.
“I’m confident in the angle-of-attack vanes that are produced and put on airplanes, and I’m confident in the MCAS system," he said.
Still, don't expect that to mean the 737 MAX to get back in American skies any time soon.
“U.S. and international operators are relying on the FAA to get it right,” Elwell said “The 737 MAX will return to service for U.S. carriers only when the FAA's analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is appropriate to do so.”