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Alabama lawmaker expects FAA changes after 737 Max crashes

A US lawmaker whose state includes manufacturing sites for aerospace firms including Airbus and Collins Aerospace predicts safety oversight at the US Federal Aviation Administration is likely to change in the wake of two fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes.

During an event on 30 May at a Collins facility in Foley, Alabama, executives from that manufacturer introduced Rep. Bradley Byrne, a Republican from that state, as a passionate advocate for both small government and the aviation industry.

Speaking with FlightGlobal, Byrne says: “I expect there will be some changes at FAA” to tighten safety oversight following the Max crashes, although he could not anticipate how Congress may increase scrutiny of the regulator.

“I’ve always had a good working relationship with FAA,” Byrne says of his time in Congress since 2014. “But this is a wake-up call. I think we should always take heed of wake-up calls and if we need to do things differently with [the] FAA, then we need to do that. Congress needs to play its part, and it will.”

The US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation is investigating the FAA’s aircraft safety certification processes. While Byrne is not a member of its counterpart House committee, he says the House committee's members “have been actively looking at it”.

“This has not been a partisan issue at all,” he says of congressional oversight of both Boeing and the FAA since the Max crashes. “We all have constituents flying on these planes and we need to make sure they are safe.”

Asset Image

A 737 Max 8 in Renton, Washington on 8 May prior to a test flight

Rex/Ted S Warren/AP/Shutterstock

Byrne’s congressional district includes Mobile, a manufacturing hub for Airbus commercial aircraft. But he says “Boeing is a great company” and is confident the Chicago-based airframer, the FAA and Congress can ensure its aircraft are safe to fly.

“It’s too soon to know the full story, and I don’t want to get too into the weeds about it, but I want to know exactly what we do learn from this,” he says.

The Senate committee’s chairman senator Roger Wicker, a Mississippi Republican, has said the committee’s investigation goes beyond the FAA’s certification of the Max aircraft and includes broader safety concerns reported by whistleblowers within the agency. Byrne says Congress should ensure such FAA employees have not faced retaliation for drawing attention to safety rules within the agency.

“There is protection under the law for whistleblowers – the question is whether it is being implemented properly,” Byrne says.

Senate committee members have questioned the FAA certification process that cleared the 737 Max's flight control software created by Boeing to prevent the Max from stalling and to make it fly like the earlier-generation 737NG.

Called the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system, the software pushes the aircraft's nose down in certain flight circumstances. It activated ahead of the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and Lion Air flight 610, causing those aircraft to dive despite pilots' efforts to counter the technology. The crashes killed 346 people and spurred debate about the sufficiency of pilot training. Crash investigations remain ongoing.

The FAA delegated review of the flight control software to Boeing, which completed the safety review in house. Outsourcing certification work to companies is sometimes necessary because the FAA would need 10,000 additional workers and $1.8 billion in new funding to assume all responsibilities for aircraft certification, acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell said in March during a Senate hearing. The FAA has said it is reviewing certification processes to determine if changes to the delegated-authority process are needed.

Max aircraft remain grounded worldwide pending re-certification of Boeing's software update.

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