Commercial airline pilots told members of Congress on 19 June that the US Federal Aviation Administration should require more frequent flight simulator training for pilots and ensure adequate aircraft information is provided during training in the wake of two fatal Boeing 737 Max crashes.
Four of five witnesses during the hearing of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure had in some way been party to an aircraft accident investigation, including Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger. Also in attendance during the hearing were friends and relatives of some of the 346 people who died in two crashes of the Max aircraft.
"These crashes are demonstrable evidence that our current system of aircraft design and certification has failed us," says Sullenberger, the pilot who in 2009 averted a crash in New York during US Airways Flight 1549 that became known as "the Miracle on the Hudson".
"We can no longer define safety solely as the absence of accidents," he says. "We need to look at all the near misses."
Investigations of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and Lion Air flight 610 remain ongoing but initial evidence indicates automated flight control software created by Boeing to prevent the Max from stalling automatically trimmed the aircraft into nosedives. The software was designed for the Max to make it to fly like the earlier-generation 737NG.
Sullenberger and Dan Carey, who represented the union of pilots at American Airlines, said during their testimonies that Boeing did not provide pilots with any information about this manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) prior to the Lion Air Crash in October. Acting FAA chief Dan Elwell has also said pilots were not given adequate information about the flight control software.
"This is a global aviation crisis of trust and will require global solutions to restore and bolster aviation’s global safety culture and reputation," Carey says.
Requiring that pilots train in flight simulators more often could reduce the likelihood of accidents and increase the chance of fixing aircraft defects, he says.
Congress investigates safety process
Committee chair Peter DeFazio says Boeing and the FAA have begun to deliver documents in response to the committee's investigation about potential mistakes leading up to the crashes including during the certification process. DeFazio reiterated the committee's findings from earlier in June that Boeing had known in 2017 about the angle-of-attack (AOA) disagree alert that was defective on 737 Max aircraft, similar to the faulty AOA sensors that contributed to the two fatal crashes.
"I was even more troubled to learn that Boeing had not planned to fix this issue until 2020 and kept delivering new 737 Max to its customers with this defect present," DeFazio says.
When the committee chairman asked Sullenberger for more detail about the MCAS, the pilot responded: "I would like to know and hear from Boeing why MCAS was necessary."
"Was it to meet a certification standard or was to achieve a common type certificate that would not require additional training for pilots," Sullenberger asks.
Boeing is coordinating with the FAA to implement a software fix to prevent the MCAS from automatically trimming the nose downward in the event of faulty data from aircraft sensors.
As aircraft software becomes more complex on aircraft including the Max, Sullenberger said "it makes resilience harder without proper knowledge".
"We must experience it firsthand in a simulator before we experience it during flight," he says.
Boeing invited two American Airlines pilots to test a 737 Max flight simulator that depicted the aircraft with the latest version of the software update on 5 June, Carey says, but the invitation was rescinded before that date. That simulator at Boeing's facility in Miami is the only Max simulator in the USA, so Carey says that lack of access makes it difficult for pilots to weigh in on the effectiveness of the software fix.
"It's curious to me that while Boeing is working on this fix they don't want the people flying it to actually see it," Carey says.
In response to questions about why Boeing rescinded the invitation of these pilots, a spokesman for the company says in an email: "Boeing continues to work with global regulators and our airline customers as they determine training requirements."
"We are working closely with our industry partners to learn from these tragedies, answer their questions, and take steps to re-earn people’s trust and ensure accidents like these never happen again," adds the spokesman.
The day before the hearing the airframer allowed Max simulator access to another witness at the hearing, former FAA administrator Randy Babbitt who headed the agency during the Obama administration and who is also a former commercial airline pilot.
"It is imperative that pilots have a full and complete understating of the automation of the equipment they operate," Babbitt says.
Among the concerns lawmakers have voiced about the FAA is its organisation designation authorisation (ODA) that grants companies and their staff authority to perform oversight of some aspects of certification. Sullenberger has criticised this program and worries the FAA has played favourites with Boeing.
"It’s important that oversight include accountability, or it means nothing," Sullenberger says. Ensuring that the FAA has consistent funding and staffing resources along with independence from political climates are a foundation for effective safety regulation, he says.
In addition to "fully funding" the FAA to remain competitive against the private sector in hiring safety personnel, the committee should "take a close look at the ODA and the process for certification", says Sara Nelson, international president of the Association of Flight Attendants union.
To completely avoid outsourcing certification work to companies, Elwell has said the FAA would need 10,000 additional workers and $1.8 billion in new funding to assume all responsibilities for aircraft certification. Aviation subcommittee chair Rick Larsen says "no one is discussing that".
"We are discussing going back to pre-2005, to a system where the FAA was more involved", rather than funding it to avoid all outsourcing of the certification process, Larsen says.
Boeing was not present during the hearing. Airlines that have grounded their 737 Max fleets have ensured passengers remain flying on aircraft that remain in service through steps including postponing re-painting livery, upgrading wi-fi and other "non-essential" procedures on those aircraft, says Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice-president of regulatory policy for the Airlines for America trade group.
“We are confident that working with those independent experts, involving our pilots unions, they will come to the right decision about what kind of training is needed and we will provide that training,” Pinkerton says.