Picture: AFP/ERIC PIERMONT
Picture: AFP/ERIC PIERMONT

Washington — US aviation regulators were directly involved in approving the flight-control system implicated in two fatal crashes on Boeing’s 737 MAX, a top administration official told US Congress on Wednesday, pushing back on complaints that the company had too much of a role overseeing itself.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) acting chief Daniel Elwell, in his first appearance before the US House committee that oversees his agency since the regulator grounded the 737 MAX, said in written testimony submitted to the committee that the involvement of FAA specialists included participation in a test flight of the system that drove down the nose in the two accidents.

The FAA has come under fire for approving the feature known as the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), and for giving the plane maker too much authority to regulate the safety of its planes. After a sensor on 737 MAX jets in Indonesia and Ethiopia malfunctioned, MCAS continually attempted to make the aircraft dive. Boeing is redesigning the system to make it less prone to operate in error.

“As our work continues, I offer this assurance: in the US, the 737 MAX will return to service only when the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is safe to do so,” Elwell said before the House aviation sub-committee.

Elwell is expected to face sceptical questioning from law makers. Sub-committee chair Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat, issued a press release on Tuesday seeking answers from FAA on the crashes.

“The committee’s investigation is just getting started, and it will take some time to get answers, but one thing is clear right now: the FAA has a credibility problem,” Larsen said.

Transportation and infrastructure committee chair Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, said in prepared remarks that the committee is still in the early stages of its review of how the plane was certified by FAA. But the tragedies are shocking, including for families of victims, he said. “They deserve answers and accountability, as does the general flying public.” 

US national transportation safety board (NTSB) chair Robert Sumwalt will also testify. The NTSB is assisting Ethiopian and Indonesian authorities in their investigations of the two crashes. Sumwalt in his written testimony said he can’t comment beyond what investigators in those two countries have said under the UN treaty governing accident probes.

The 737 MAX, Boeing’s best-selling aircraft, was grounded on March 13 after it became clear that an Ethiopian Airlines crash three days earlier had similar underlying causes to a Lion Air crash on October 29 near Jakarta.

MCAS was added to the 737 MAX to make it less likely to enter an aerodynamic stall. It automatically commands a relatively modest dive if it senses a plane’s nose has gotten too high. In the accidents, it repeatedly pushed down the nose despite efforts by the pilots to counter it. The crashes killed 346 people.

Bloomberg