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Westlake Legal Group > National Transportation Safety Board

F.A.A. Chief Defends Boeing Certification Process at House Hearing

The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration defended the agency’s certification procedures involving the now-grounded Boeing 737 Max airplane, telling the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday that the process by which company-paid employees inspected their own aircraft was “a good system.”

The F.A.A. executive, Daniel Elwell, said his agency was reviewing a decades-old practice that allowed F.A.A.-certified employees at 79 aircraft manufacturers to assist in the certification of airplanes. But he said he supported the idea of delegating “certain tasks and certain decisions” in the certification process to private employees, despite criticism that the practice has led to lax oversight.

Mr. Elwell, a former pilot and industry lobbyist, faced two hours of questions from skeptical members of the committee, the first of several hearings the committee plans to hold about the regulator’s role in the wake of two fatal crashes involving the troubled airliner.

“How can we have a single point of failure on a modern aircraft?” asked Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and the committee’s chairman, who questioned whether the inspection system may have led to the problems with airliner. “How was that certified? We shouldn’t have to be here today.”

Representative Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington who heads the Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation, pressed Mr. Elwell on the agency’s designee authorization process, and the F.A.A.’s role in the development of pilot training procedures for the 737 Max. Pilots were not told about an anti-stall system known as MCAS that was new to the plane and which played a role in both crashes.

[Read our article about how Boeing executives resisted pilots’ urgent calls to fix the 737 Max.]

“The committee’s investigation is just getting started, and it will take some time to get answers, but one thing is clear right now: The F.A.A. has a credibility problem,” Mr. Larsen said.

The 737 Max was grounded in March after an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. Less than five months earlier, a Lion Air 737 Max flight went down in Indonesia, killing 189 people.

“I thought the MCAS should have been more adequately explained” to pilots around the world, Mr. Elwell said. He faced a number of questions about whether pilots were given proper training on changes to the plane’s navigation and stabilization systems.

ImageWestlake Legal Group merlin_154526991_0806b611-d08d-4766-9d40-0416397ee62d-articleLarge F.A.A. Chief Defends Boeing Certification Process at House Hearing National Transportation Safety Board House Committee on Transportation Federal Aviation Administration Elwell, Daniel K Dickson, Stephen DeFazio, Peter A Boeing Company Boeing 737 Max Groundings and Safety Concerns (2019)

Boeing 737 Max airplanes at the Boeing Factory in Renton, Wash. “The committee’s investigation is just getting started,” said Representative Rick Larsen, a Democrat on the House Transportation Committee.CreditLindsey Wasson/Reuters

The agency, Mr. Elwell said, delegates to the employees of manufacturers only those aspects of aircraft inspection that do not pertain directly to an aircraft’s core safety functions. But Mr. Elwell did acknowledge that the problems with MCAS were, indeed, considered a critical safety issue — raising new questions about whether Boeing employees should have been allowed to inspect it.

Mr. Elwell also said he was “not happy” with the 13-month lag between reports of a “software anomaly” involving a warning light that notifies pilots of a disagreement in sensors that measure which direction the plane is pointed, and Boeing’s actions to address the problem. Boeing discovered in 2017 that the warning light worked only on planes with an optional indicator that displayed the sensor readings. That indicator was sold as an add-on, and only 20 percent of 737 Max customers purchased it. Neither the Lion Air not the Ethiopian Airlines plane had it.

Still, Mr. Elwell said he did not believe that problem contributed to either crash.

Boeing is expected to soon submit a software fix that would keep the automated system from activating based on erroneous data, a factor in both crashes, according to agency investigators. An early version of the new software is being tested in simulators, F.A.A. officials said.

Mr. Elwell gave no timetable for when the plane might be cleared to fly again. He said the agency would only clear the planes on the recommendation of a multiagency technical advisory board made up of experts from the F.A.A., the Air Force, NASA and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center who were not involved in the initial certification of the 737 Max.

F.A.A. officials convened a meeting with aviation officials from other countries this month to address their concerns about the plane, he said, an effort to bolster confidence in the “un-grounding” of the plane when it is finally approved.

Mr. Elwell was also pressed about why the F.A.A. did not ground the plane until China, much of Europe and Canada already had.

“Why did it take so long?” asked Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate to the House.

“The public perception,” added Representative Dina Titus, a Democrat from Nevada, is that the F.A.A. “is in bed” with Boeing.

Mr. Elwell said the decision to ground the jets was based on consultations with Canadian authorities who provided radar tracking information that linked the two crashes to the MCAS system. He defended the F.A.A. as a “data-driven” organization and said that of the 24 reports of handling issues with the plane, “none” were related to MCAS.


Westlake Legal Group 13boeing-promo-videoSixteenByNine3000-v2 F.A.A. Chief Defends Boeing Certification Process at House Hearing National Transportation Safety Board House Committee on Transportation Federal Aviation Administration Elwell, Daniel K Dickson, Stephen DeFazio, Peter A Boeing Company Boeing 737 Max Groundings and Safety Concerns (2019)

Boeing introduced the 737 Max as a reliable fuel- and cost-efficient solution to air travel in the 21st century. After two fatal Max crashes, all of the Max aircraft in the world are believed to have been grounded.CreditCreditChang W. Lee/The New York Times

He also suggested throughout the hearing that the inexperience and actions by the flight crews in both accidents might have contributed to the crashes.

“They never controlled the airspeeds,” he said.

Earl Lawrence, the agency’s executive director of aircraft certification, said the F.A.A. was in the process of establishing a new office to oversee the public-private inspection process. He added that the 737 Max was approved only after five years and 10,000 “man hours” of work.

“We take advantage of the expertise of the people who are designing and building the aircraft to assist us,” Mr. Lawrence said.

“I’m proud of my team,” he added of the federal employees who oversaw Boeing’s work.

Also on Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee questioned Stephen Dickson, the former Delta Air Lines executive whom President Trump has tapped to permanently lead the F.A.A., about the plane. He kept his responses relatively vague, saying regulators “must never rest” in their quest for a perfect safety record.

Over the past two months, Mr. DeFazio has requested a trove of documents from the F.A.A. and Boeing regarding the inspection process and the review undertaken to determine the safety of MCAS. He is especially focused on why Boeing did not require pilots to undergo further training with the anti-stall system.

Mr. DeFazio has received none of the requested documents yet, although the F.A.A. is expected to begin releasing documents to the committee soon. It is not clear when Boeing intends to reply — and Mr. DeFazio warned the manufacturer that it needed to supply the documents “voluntarily” or he would seek other means to the obtain them.

Senator Edward J. Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts and a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also sent a request to Boeing for answers on its procedures. He has received a two-page later that referred to Mr. Elwell’s previous public statements but provided little new information.

At times, members of the committee seemed impatient with Mr. Elwell’s reluctance to provide detailed answers about what internal improvements the agency was planning to undertake.

For his part, Mr. Elwell expressed concern that the criticism of F.A.A.’s actions was having a negative impact on the agency.

“I’m a little bit worried about morale right now across the F.A.A.,” Mr. Elwell said.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Local Metro safety oversight could start this winter

WASHINGTON — The Metrorail Safety Commission is set to provide the first-ever local safety oversight of Metro that has enforcement power as soon as this winter.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am … that we have made so much progress toward taking over the safety oversight of Metrorail,” Chairman Christopher Hart said.

The Federal Transit Administration has had temporary direct safety oversight of Metro since late 2015 and has also, for nearly two years, been withholding federal transit funding from all of Maryland, Virginia and the District until the Metrorail Safety Commission is certified.

The federal deadline for certification of all similar state safety oversight agencies is April 15, and commission leaders are now extremely optimistic that they will be ready before then.

“The deadline is the middle of April of 2019, but we have all indications that it’s going to happen actually before that, so we are very excited about that possibility, and we are certainly ready and eager to take over,” Hart said at a meeting last week.

Commission staff have been working through an extensive training and transition process, while also addressing the basics of setting up a new organization.

Since the commission submitted its certification application and operational plans in late September, CEO David Mayer said the FTA has led the transition process.

That is all about to change starting in January, though.

“Our staff … will actually begin to pilot test our program standard and our forms and procedures to actually begin to do some of the oversight work,” Mayer said.

Up to now, the commission’s inspectors have been learning from or shadowing FTA inspectors.

That work has included detailed briefings about FTA findings and inspections in October and November, and shadowing the FTA inspectors in December as they checked on Metro’s track and structures, signals, train control center and systems, shops and rail yards.

The FTA has also given detailed briefings about the outstanding corrective action plans Metro must complete to address findings from previous National Transportation Safety Board, FTA and other investigations.

The commission expects to schedule one more public meeting just before FTA certification. Mayer expects that meeting to be held in February, if current plans hold. Public meetings have so far been sporadic, but the commission expects to meet monthly after certification to discuss specific investigative findings and other issues.

Hart, a former National Transportation Safety Board chairman, expects many meetings will be long and detail-focused and include an opportunity for limited public comment.

“Today’s meeting is going to be pretty short and sweet, but … typical meetings will not be so short and sweet, and in order to keep the meetings from becoming unduly long, one of the things we want to do is to have issues of importance being addressed by committees in great detail … before it reaches public discussion in a meeting like this,” he said on Dec. 20.

The committees could also allow the three alternates to the six main commissioners to be more involved in issues, something no longer permitted on Metro’s own board.

“The alternates really bring a lot to the table in terms of background, experience … and one of the ways that we can really take advantage of that valuable contribution is have them participate actively in the committees and even lead committees,” Hart said.


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