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Safety hearing
Acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell, NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt and Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department’s inspector general, face a Senate panel during a hearing on airline safety. (C-SPAN Photo)

Were airline pilots adequately trained on a catastrophic scenario involving the automatic flight control system for Boeing’s 737 MAX airplanes? And did the Federal Aviation Administration cede too much of its responsibility to Boeing when the system was certified as safe?

Those are among the key questions that U.S. senators had for federal officials today during a pair of Capitol Hill hearings today.

Meanwhile, Boeing brought about 200 pilots and airline industry officials to Renton, Wash., the base of operations for the company’s 737 program, to learn more about the changes being made in the wake of two fatal MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. October’s Lion Air crash in Indonesia killed all 189 people aboard, while this month’s Ethiopian Airlines crash killed 157.

In both cases, investigators have focused on an automatic flight control system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.

The MCAS software system was added to the 737 MAX, the latest version of the 51-year-old 737 line, to compensate for the aerodynamic effects of a larger engine and guard against stalling. But preliminary findings from the Lion Air investigation suggest that spurious data from a single angle-of-attack sensor forced the MCAS to push the plane repeatedly into a nose dive. Investigators suspect the same scenario in the Ethiopia crash.

Even before that crash, Boeing was working on a software update to address the bad-data scenario.

At a Renton news conference, Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s vice president of product strategy and development, confirmed that the update would have the MCAS come into play only if both angle-of-attack sensors detected indications of a stall. The system would be activated only once, rather than repeatedly, and could more easily be counteracted manually by the pilot, The Seattle Times quoted Sinnett as saying.

Tests of the software changes were on the agenda for this week’s Renton gathering.

All 737 MAX planes are grounded worldwide due to concerns about the crash, resulting in continuing disruption and costs for airlines. But once the FAA and its counterparts in other countries give the go-ahead, the software update could theoretically be distributed in a matter of days.

Sinnett also said pilots would receive half an hour of computer-based training on the MCAS software changes, but that no additional training in a flight simulator would be required. He said the training plan has been “provisionally approved” by the FAA.

The training issue came up repeatedly today at a congressional hearing organized by the Senate Commerce Committee’s panel on aviation and space.

Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell told senators that he didn’t believe the MCAS system was specifically addressed in flight simulation training. He said regulators initially agreed with Boeing’s analysis that the system made “no marked difference in the handling characteristics” of the 737.

But in light of the fatal crashes, Elwell said training procedures are “an area that we will look into very, very carefully.”

At an earlier hearing, organized by the Senate appropriations subcommittee focusing on the Transportation Department and other agencies, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao faced tough questions about regulatory oversight, or the potential lack thereof.

During the certification process for the 737 MAX, Boeing drew up its own safety analysis of the changes made from the design for the previous 737 model.

In an investigative report published last week, The Seattle Times quoted unnamed sources as saying that the analysis downplayed risks associated with the MCAS system. One former FAA engineer said the agency’s review of Boeing’s analysis was “rushed to reach [a] certain certification date.”

When Chao was asked about the relationship between Boeing and the FAA during certification, she insisted that the FAA was in charge of the process.

“The FAA does not build planes. They certify. But this method of having the manufacturer also be involved in looking at these standards is really necessary, because … the FAA cannot do it on their own,” she said. “Having said that, I am of course concerned about any allegations of coziness.”

Chao emphasized that safety is her department’s top concern, and noted that additional steps were being taken to respond to issues raised in the aftermath of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes.

Last week, Chao asked the Transportation Department’s inspector general to conduct an audit of the certification process for the 737 MAX, and that investigation is getting under way. This week, Chao announced the formation of a special advisory committee to suggest improvements in the FAA’s oversight and certification process.

During this afternoon’s hearing, Elwell said the cooperative approach to aircraft certification was deeply ingrained in FAA procedures. If the agency were to do the job without delegating duties to manufacturers, it would need 10,000 more employees and $1.8 billion in additional funding, he said.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., vowed to introduce legislation to reform the process.

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