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US Senate scrutinises FAA on Boeing 737 Max oversight

Top aviation regulators during a US Senate committee hearing defended their scrutiny of pilot training, aircraft certification and restriction against making safety features optional purchases while lawmakers vowed to pass legislation to sharpen safety oversight following two fatal crashes of Boeing 737 Max aircraft.

“Millions of Americans fly regularly on these planes, we need the flying public to have confidence about safety,” says Senator Ted Cruz, chairman of the US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Subcommittee on Aviation and Space.

Lawmakers during the hearing on 27 March questioned the certification process that cleared flight control software created by Boeing for the 737 Max aircraft to prevent it from stalling. If pilots were not trained to use this software called the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System it could have made it difficult to maintain altitude ahead of the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and Lion Air flight 610, during which 346 people died.

The US Federal Aviation Administration delegated review of that flight control software to Boeing, which completed the safety review in house, acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell told lawmakers. Elwell says this is a necessity because the agency would need 10,000 additional workers and $1.8 billion in new funding to assume all responsibilities for aircraft certification.

Elwell told Cruz he was unsure whether pilot training for the 737 Max included an emergency scenario to teach them how to adjust the plane’s angle of attack if false data led the software to trim the nose downward when there was no risk of stalling.

“The FAA’s ongoing review of this software installation and training is an agency priority,” Elwell says in his testimony. “The 737 Max will return to service for US carriers only when the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is appropriate to do so.”

The FAA faced intense criticism for being among the last aviation regulators to ground the 737 Max on 13 March and news reports about the agency’s relationship with Boeing drew pointed questions from lawmakers. Senator Ed Markey and 16 other senators sent a letter to Boeing inquiring about news reports that the manufacturer charged airlines extra for safety systems to help pilots recognise false readings from sensors connected to the MCAS flight control software.

“Aviation safety should not be a luxury that can be bought and sold for an extra fee,” Markey told Elwell, announcing he will introduce legislation to prohibit companies from making safety features optional when selling to airlines.

Faulty sensor readings are being investigated as a potential factor in the Lion Air crash because the MCAS would have automatically trimmed the aircraft's nose downward when there was no risk of stalling.“If there is any manufacturer that sells a safety critical part a la carte, we will not permit it,” Elwell says, clarifying it is the FAA’s job to determine what parts are safety critical.

Boeing earlier on 27 March said it has developed updated MCAS software to prevent false data from triggering the anti-stall flight control and tested it inflight as a step towards federal certification. US Department of Transportation Inspector General Calvin Scovell told lawmakers he will investigate key decisions made by the FAA when certifying the airplane and the timeline, when the MCAS flight control software was added to the aircraft “and why FAA approved it, or the extent of FAA‘s involvement in Boeing’s decision to approve it.”

Also earlier on 27 March, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao faced questions about the effectiveness of the FAA and its relationship with Boeing in light of the 737 Max crashes during a separate Senate hearing about the 2020 budget.

"I am of course concerned about any allegations of coziness with any company," Chao told members of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, Urban Development and Related Agencies. “These questions, when they arise, if they arise, are troubling."

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