Internal federal watchdog says Boeing crashes have ‘shaken’ confidence in FAA


737 MAX (Stephen Brashear/Getty Images)

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The Department of Transportation’s inspector general told senators on Wednesday that the agency’s actions in response to the fatal crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft had “shaken” confidence in the Federal Aviation Administration.

“Clearly confidence in the FAA as the gold standard in aviation safety has been shaken,” Calvin Scovel said during a Senate hearing on US aviation safety.

He added his investigators were aiming to complete their review of the FAA’s approval for Boeing’s jets within 10 months.

Scovel’s comments came hours after Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao testified before another Senate panel that she found it “very questionable” that safety systems were not part of the standard package offered by Boeing on its 737 Max jets.

“It is very questionable if these were safety oriented additions why they were not part of the required template of measures that should go into an airplane,” she said in testimony before the Senate, where she was appearing to answer questions about her annual budget request.

Yet Chao defended the decision of the FAA not to ground Boeing’s signature plane after the first of two fatal crashes.

“The FAA is a very professional, fact-based organization, and they don’t make decisions that are too hasty,” she said.

FAA acting administrator Daniel Elwell also testified, defending the FAA’s decision delay in grounding the 737 Max fleet, discounting other countries’ decision to ground the planes based on two crashes within five months.

“The United States and Canada were the first countries to ground the aircraft with data for cause and purpose,” he said.

He reiterated his earlier comments that the FAA’s decision came after an analysis of satellite data and unspecified physical evidence discovered at the crash site.

“I can’t speak to the reasoning that the other nations took,” he said. “I know that in communication with those countries, in our requests what data might they have, they did not have any data for us.”

Both Boeing and the FAA have come under scrutiny since an Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed earlier this month, killing all 157 people aboard.

The airline manufacturer on Wednesday unveiled an overhaul to its software system and the pilot training for the 737 Max, marking its most direct attempt to fix an element of the plane’s original design that investigators believe led to the two recent crashes.

The software update adds data from a second sensor on the nose of the plane that measures the horizontal tilt of the airplane. The existing software only drew data from one sensor.

Boeing also said Wednesday it would make standard an alert that displays if the two sensors are contradicting each other. It had been included only as an option in the original model.

Investigators in Indonesia have fingered faulty data as a factor in the crash of a Lion Air jet last year. The software is believed to also be at the center of the Ethiopian Airlines crash earlier this month.

More than 200 airline pilots, technical leaders and regulators convened at Boeing’s sprawling production facility outside of Seattle Wednesday as the company rolled out efforts to restore industry confidence in its safety protocols and the airworthiness of the 737 Max.

The gathering came at a crisis moment for the iconic American company, now under criminal scrutiny by the Justice Department for its certification and marketing of the 737 Max plane.

Boeing’s stock market value has taken a hit two weeks after the FAA, and regulators around the world, ordered the 737 Max fleet temporarily grounded.

Boeing plans to make their final submission of compliance documents for the update to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, software to the FAA by the end of the week, a Boeing official said Tuesday.

On Wednesday, the industry officials at the gathering heard a presentation from the company’s chief pilot for commercial airplanes, Craig Bomben, and Mike Sinnett, the vice president of product strategyfor Boeing Commercial planes, according to a Boeing spokesman.

Software designers at Boeing developed the update to the system after extensive engineering analysis, design, and verification, the official said, and first submitted a proposed certification plan for the update to the FAA on January 21.

The MCAS system was added to the 737 Max to compensate for a shift in the center of gravity of the plane from the original 737 model brought about by changes including the placement of new fuel-efficient engines.

The system is designed to automatically command a plane to pitch down if it senses an imminent stall.

Boeing pilots worked with the company’s software design team throughout months of production to incorporate multiple layers of protection in the event of sensor errors or other erroneous inputs, the Boeing official said.

The updated software will also draw data from two sensors, instead of one, Boeing said Wednesday.

Simulator operators at Boeing programmed test flights of the new software with “the most challenging scenarios,” mimicking multiple failure situations, the official said.

Boeing pilots later conducted a certification flight with the FAA on March 12, two days after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, to demonstrate to regulators that the updated software met certification requirements, the official said.

On Saturday, the three US airlines that fly the 737 Max ran successful flights on a simulator designed to recreate the Lion Air flight with both the current and the updated software at the Boeing facility in Renton, Wash.

Pilots have said their training on the 737 Max consisted of a short, self-administered online course that made no mention of the new MCAS system and how to disable it in a situation that the pilots on the Lion Air, and likely the Ethiopian Airlines flights, faced.

As they battled the uncooperative and diving plane last year, the pilots on the doomed Lion Air flight attempted a routine maneuver to try and stabilize the plane by triggering a switch near the steering wheel approximately three dozen times, according to a report by Indonesian investigators.

But the force of the software continued to send the plane downward until it reached an angle that would have been unrecoverable for the pilots.

To shut down the MCAS software, the lead pilot would have had to turn around and flip two switches behind him, a move that a representative for American Airline’s pilots union called a “tremendous leap of logic.”

“There’s no intuitive connection between those two things,” Captain Jason Goldberg said, referring to what pilots would have been fighting with the MCAS software and this two-switch solution.

“We have very well-trained pilots all over the world but a scenario involving pre-briefed pilots who know what’s coming in a simulator should not be confused with a real life emergency involving a system that pilots did not even know existed prior to the event,” Goldberg told CNN after the Saturday session.

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