The Latest: Senators Grill Elwell on Safety, Industry Ties

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FILE – This Thursday, March 14, 2019, file photo shows a Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane parked at Boeing Field in Seattle. America’s standing as the model for aviation-safety regulation will be on trial as congressional hearings begin Wednesday, March 27, 2019, into the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of Boeing before and after two deadly crashes of its best-selling airliner. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File) THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Senators question acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell about whether safety features on Boeing aircraft should be sold a la carte.

WASHINGTON (AP) — THE Latest on Congressional hearings looking into the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of Boeing (all times local):

Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., challenged FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell on whether the FAA should ban “selling safety features a la carte to the airlines.” Safety features like the MCAS (or Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) shouldn’t be optional at an extra charge but should be provided gratis like seat belts on vehicles, he said.

“It doesn’t mask any problem,” Elwell insisted in questioning on the MCAS. “What it does, is it gives the proper feel to a pilot because he doesn’t have those cables.”

And Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., raised the prickly issue of whether the FAA, as an independent regulator, has a too-cozy a relationship with the airlines and aircraft makers. He noted that Boeing, a major government contractor with deep longstanding connections in Washington, is locked in intense competition with European maker Airbus.

Political appointees at the FAA pushed the career staff to quickly get done what was needed to get the Max flying, Udall said.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the issue of the FAA’s posture toward the industry is a part of his investigation.

Elwell said he kept the White House and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao “fully apprised” of developments before the decision to ground the planes. Chao “never told me to ground it,” he told Senator Blumenthal.

FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell refused to answer questions about his conversation with President Donald Trump before the FAA grounded the Boeing 737 Max last week.

Elwell told Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., that it is longstanding executive branch policy through many administrations not to talk about details of discussions with the president.

Blumenthal said he is not aware of the policy and asked if it was law. If it was law, he asked Elwell which law. He also asserted that there was no executive privilege involved.

 

Elwell said that Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao never told him to ground the planes. He continued to say he wouldn’t talk about a conversation with the president.

The U.S. was among the last nations to ground the planes after the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell says information collected from flight data recorders shows no software malfunctions that forced down the nose of Boeing 737 Max jets in the U.S.

The software which makes the Max fly like older 737 jets is under investigation as a possible cause of jet crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia that killed 346 people.

Under questioning from Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., who flew Blackhawk helicopters in the Iraq war, Elwell said pilots should know what to do if software repeatedly points the nose down.

Duckworth says she still has “muscle memory” on how to resort to manual control if a Blackhawk nose is pointed down.

Elwell says that before the FAA grounded the Max last week, he talked to pilot unions and was told they are confident in the Max’s safety.

“We are absolutely confident in the safety of this aircraft,” Elwell said.

FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell says his agency would have to hire 10,000 more workers and spend another $1.8 billion per year to match the number of airplanes certified for flight by its current system of delegating duties to aircraft makers.

Elwell says the system has been in use for about 60 years and is “part of the fabric of what we’ve used to become as safe as we are today.”

He says the FAA conducts strict oversight of the manufacturers, making sure employees have expertise in their field and professional integrity. Elwell also says the FAA’s European equivalent relies more on delegation of tasks to manufacturers than the U.S. does.

But Democrat Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut says he will introduce legislation to reform the system, calling it “safety on the cheap.”

Senator Blumenthal says Boeing rushed to get the 737 Max into the air to compete with Europe’s Airbus, so critical safety features were disregarded. “There needs to be rigorous reform so the FAA is put back in charge of safety,” he says.

Acting Federal Aviation Administrator Daniel Elwell tells a Senate subcommittee that to his knowledge, pilots were not given specific instructions on the Boeing 737 Max software that is under investigation as a cause of crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia.

Elwell says the Max was an update to the previous generation 737 with a system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, to correct for small modifications and make it fly like the older planes. He says the plane has larger engines that were moved forward on the wings, and the nose wheel was extended 6 inches.

He says U.S., Canadian and European pilots flew the new and older planes in simulators, and unanimously agreed that the Max performed similarly and that additional flight training wasn’t needed.

The FAA originally retained oversight of the MCAS system but eventually turned it over to Boeing, he said.

Boeing says it doesn’t see a need to overhaul the way it develops airplanes based on two recent crashes of its new 737 Max that killed a total of 346 people.

The company issued its comments as pilots, regulators and airline executives were gathering at a Boeing facility to learn more about how it is addressing the crashes.

Boeing said it hopes to issue a software update to address a crucial flight-control program that is suspected of playing a role in the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air jet in Indonesia and the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Max. The company said that once the Federal Aviation Administration certifies the software fix, it would take about a day to deploy it and then an hour to install it on the planes.

Boeing said the process by which it designs, develops and tests planes has led to safer and safer air travel, and it sees no reason to overhaul it.

Texas Senator Ted Cruz says the Boeing 737 Max crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia and reports about how the plane was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration have shaken the public’s confidence.

The Republican opened a hearing on air safety Wednesday by the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation subcommittee. Cruz, who chairs the subcommittee, says the crashes have raised questions about FAA oversight of how airplanes are certified to fly.

Cruz noted the “close relationship between industry and regulators” as a factor threatening to erode the confidence of the flying public. He says the committee needs to understand what happened with the crashes, how the FAA determined that the Max was airworthy, and “take action to keep something like these tragic crashes from occurring again.”

Cruz says commercial aviation currently is as safe as it’s ever been, but reports of lax oversight are frustrating. “We need to do better and I believe that we can,” he said.

Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, says the committee will hold a second hearing with representatives of Boeing and others from outside government.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is defending President Donald Trump and blamed Congress for what she calls a delay in nominating a permanent head of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois, asked Chao at a Senate appropriations hearing on Wednesday whether it was unusual that Trump took 14 months to propose a nominee to head the agency, which is under scrutiny for its oversight of Boeing after two crashes involving Boeing’s best-selling plane.

Chao said the process has been slowed by the White House and by Congress, but Durbin pointed out that Trump never sent a nominee to the Senate for consideration.

Chao said acting administrator Daniel Elwell was qualified to lead the agency. Elwell is a former military and airline pilot who had been the No. 2 official at FAA.

Elwell was bypassed when Trump this month announced he would nominate a former pilot and Delta Air Lines executive, Stephen Dickson, to head the FAA.

Southwest Airlines says that the government’s grounding of all Boeing Max 8 jets will contribute to a $150 million revenue loss in the first quarter.

The airline says it had to cancel about 2,800 flights due to the groundings. According to numbers from Boeing, Southwest operates the largest fleet of the troubled planes.

The U.S. government followed nearly every other country in the world this month by ordering all Max 8 planes grounded after 157 people died in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8. Another Max 8 crashed four months earlier in Indonesia, killing 189.

Southwest said in a filing Wednesday that it had to cancel an additional 6,600 flights from mid-February through the end of March due to weather and unscheduled maintenance.

The Senate is holding hearings Wednesday to look into the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of Boeing.

The Transportation Department’s inspector general, Calvin Scovel, is scheduled to testify and is expected to reveal plans to significantly revamp the FAA’s oversight of airplane construction.

Congressional hearings into the Federal Aviation Administration’s oversight of Boeing before and after two deadly crashes of its 737 Max, which claimed a total of 346 lives, will begin in several hours.

Among those expected to testify before the Senate aviation subcommittee Wednesday is the Transportation Department’s inspector general, who is leading a review of the FAA and Boeing. Calvin Scovel is expected to reveal plans to significantly revamp the FAA’s oversight of airplane construction.

Acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell will testify that Boeing submitted an application on Jan. 21 spelling out changes it planned to make to crucial flight-control software on the 737 Max — the same system that is suspected of playing a role in the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air jet in Indonesia and the March 10 plunge of an Ethiopian Airlines Max.

The Transportation Department watchdog has previously raised questions about the FAA’s certification of Boeing planes and the seemingly close relationship between some agency managers and Boeing.

 

The Associated Press.

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