Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson will testify before Congress on 11 December about the FAA’s certification of the Boeing 737 Max – a hearing analysts view as an opportunity for Dickson to convince lawmakers and the public that the Max will be safe.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson will testify before Congress on 11 December about the agency’s certification of the Boeing 737 Max – a hearing analysts view as an opportunity for Dickson to convince lawmakers and the public that the Max will be safe.
The hearing before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure comes at a critical time for the FAA and for Boeing.
The US airframer continues to stick to its estimate that the FAA will re-certify the 737 Max before year-end.
The House committee has confirmed Dickson’s appearance at the 11 December hearing, titled “The Boeing 737 Max: Examining the Federal Aviation Administration’s Oversight of the Aircraft’s Certification”.
The FAA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The committee has not disclosed whether others will testify.
Just what Dickson might tell Congress remains unknown, but analysts see the hearing as an opportunity for Dickson to assuage skeptical lawmakers and to publicly pledge that the FAA will ensure the Max’s safety.
Teal Group aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia suggests Dickson will stick to the pro-active, forward-looking message he has expounded since taking over the FAA on 12 August.
That message is that the FAA, not Boeing, is now running the show, and that the FAA will only certify the Max when it is absolutely and without question satisfied that the aircraft is safe.
“He’s been good at messaging that the FAA has taken charge of the re-certification process,” says Aboulafia, adding that such a message could help set the stage for a Max return-to-service.
Michel Merluzeau with aerospace consultancy AIR, views the hearing as an opportunity for Dickson to raise his agency’s credibility and “project confidence” by stating “on the record” how the FAA will manage the Max’s return to flight.
Lawmakers, meanwhile, will have an opportunity to get assurances from Elwell.
“I see it as Congress doing due diligence… Getting some on-the-record guarantees as to what [the FAA] staff intends to look at,” Merluzeau says.
While Congress could have spoken to Dickson in a closed-door meeting, Merluzeau sees the public hearing as useful.
“The public needs this oral audit,” he says.
Dickson’s message has differed from that of former acting administrator Dan Elwell, who ran the FAA until August.
During an earlier Congressional hearing, Elwell defended the FAA’s certification work, though he did concede pilots of two crashed aircraft should have been briefed about the existence of the 737 Max’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), which contributed to both crashes.
“Elwell was playing defence,” says Aboulafia.
Elwell also insisted that pilots, even without knowledge of MCAS, can counter an MCAS activation by executing a procedure they should have committed to memory. Boeing has said the same.
Additionally, Elwell told lawmakers the FAA would need billions of dollars more in funding and thousands more employees to do away with an oft-criticised programme under which the FAA passes some certification work to manufacturers.
Boeing equipped the 737 Max with MCAS to counter the Max’s tendency, in certain situations, to pitch nose up. MCAS pushes the nose down.
But the system, acting in response to erroneous angle-of-attack data, contributed to the crash of a Lion Air 737 Max 8 in October 2018 and an Ethiopian Airlines Max 8 in March. MCAS pushed both aircraft into dives from which the pilots were unable to recover.
Investigators into the Lion Air accident called attention to other factors, including potential airline shortcomings and the actions of the pilots. The Ethiopian Airlines accident investigation remains ongoing.
The FAA has been working to certify software changes made by Boeing to eliminate risks posed by MCAS.
Boeing, under immense financial pressure to get the 737 Max back in the skies, has said it expects the FAA to clear the aircraft before year end. The FAA is also considering revisions to pilot training requirements.
But the likelihood of the FAA meeting that goal remains unknown, and the agency has indicated no timeline.