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Senators zero in on Boeing safety feature linked to twin crashes

Lion Air Group livery is displayed on the tail fin of a Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft during a ceremony at the Boeing delivery center in Seattle on March 21, 2018. Bloomberg photo by David Ryder.

WASHINGTON - Senators pressed top U.S. officials on the Federal Aviation Administration's oversight of Boeing Co. and a controversial safety system linked to two crashes in five months of the company's top-selling 737 Max jetliner.

In a highly anticipated hearing, the lawmakers questioned FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell about a new anti-stall countermeasure on the Max that investigators suspect malfunctioned, contributing to the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air jet in the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia and possibly a subsequent crash of an Ethiopian Air flight on March 10.

Elwell, in his first public response to weeks of controversy, said that the FAA initially retained oversight over the jet's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System certification because it was a new system. Later, after the agency became more comfortable with it, they allowed Boeing employees delegated to sign off on designs by the FAA to make final approvals, Elwell said.

He disputed reports that the FAA allowed Boeing to do "self-certification," urged caution about drawing conclusions of accident investigations that aren't completed and insisted the agency would allow data to drive its response.

The system and the delegation of authority to Boeing employees were key features of the first public forum to examine what has become one of the most high-profile aviation safety investigations in decades, prompting a federal criminal inquiry and multiple reviews of how Boeing's new single-aisle plane was approved.

"The fact of the matter is that these crashes and subsequent reports on how the 737 Max was approved have badly shaken consumer confidence," Texas Republican Ted Cruz, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee's aviation panel, said in his opening remarks. "In aviation, as in other industries where a small mistake can have catastrophic consequences, trust is the currency of the realm."

Flight data from the Lion Air jet indicated that the anti-stall countermeasure repeatedly pushed the plane's nose down before pilots lost control. Less than five months later, a second 737 Max crashed in Ethiopia, resulting in dozens of nations grounding the airliner.

But in Washington, the Federal Aviation Administration didn't follow suit until March 13, after flights had been banned in more than 40 other countries. In a separate Senate hearing Wednesday, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao defended that decision, saying the FAA had "no factual basis" to ground the 737 Max until March 13, when new evidence emerged showing similarities between the two doomed flights which killed a combined 346 people.

The crashes have put Boeing and the FAA under withering scrutiny, with multiple investigations into the agency's certification of the 737 Max and its reliance on FAA-designated company employees to certify the safety of much of the planes.

Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department's inspector general, told the senators that his office in 2015 reviewed two internal audits by Boeing of its FAA designee program that found "employee concerns about undue pressure which could lead to rushing safety critical tasks to meet production schedules."

The finding led to recommendations for how FAA the could best use those company reviews to improve oversight. The FAA agreed with said they would address it, but Scovel's office hasn't reviewed whether those efforts have been effective.

"What remains to be done, and this is typical audit process, is to see how it's effectively implemented going forward." Scovel said, pointing out that may not happen for years.

Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, last week asked Scovel's office to evaluate whether the FAA's reliance on corporate designees affected the agency's certification of the 737 Max's new anti-stall countermeasures and the FAA's decision to not revise pilot training and manuals for the Max.

Elwell emphasized that the FAA's aircraft certification process has existed in some form for decades, including the involvement of companies in safety-approval work. That "delegation" is under scrutiny amid questions about whether FAA gave Boeing too much leeway with the 737 Max.

If FAA had to certify all aircraft it would take 10,000 engineers instead of the current several hundred, and $1.8 billion for its new budget, Elwell said.

He took issue with characterizations of the FAA's designee program. The FAA retains control over their work, he said. "We do not allow self-certification of any kind."

Lawmakers in 2012 overwhelmingly passed and President Barack Obama signed a three-year reauthorization of the FAA's authority that ordered sweeping changes to streamline the agency's aircraft certification process. It specifically instructed the FAA administrator to consider how to expand the use of designees to certify the safety of broad swaths of new planes and components on the agency's behalf.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt told the Senate panel that the agency had issued eight recommendations to the FAA regarding the regulator's use of "engineering designees," three of which are still open and unresolved. Those are the company-paid employees who perform safety certification work on the FAA's behalf and are now under the microscope.

Cruz questioned Elwell about whether online pilot training for the 737 Max included information on MCAS, something pilots unions in the U.S. have complained about. Elwell said it didn't, but that the system was designed to operate in only limited circumstances and largely behind-the-scenes, so what pilots experienced in the Max's cockpit would be very similar to the earlier 737s.

Under questioning from Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, the aviation subcommittee's top Democrat, Elwell pointed out that there was a consensus opinion among pilots the FAA consulted that there was no "marked difference" in how the Max handled compared to earlier 737s. That's what FAA needs to determine whether additional pilot training is needed, Elwell said.

Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal said he wants to overhaul the FAA's certification so it doesn't let companies rather than the agency be at the center of decision-making. He called the current system "safety on the cheap."

As the nation's capital was focused on the hearing, Boeing gathered customers and news media Wednesday in Renton, Washington, to walk through the details of a software update to the MCAS system.

Boeing said it submitted a proposed certification plan for the software changes to the FAA on Jan. 21. After trying it out in flight simulators, the company conducted a test flight on Feb. 7. That was followed by a "certification flight with the FAA'' on March 12 -- just two days after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed near Addis Ababa, killing 157.

Boeing plans a final submission of the MCAS software update by the end of this week.

This article was written by Ryan Beene, Alan Levin and Laura Litvan, reporters for Bloomberg