The US aviation regulator on Wednesday defended its safety regime under sustained criticism both from senators and an official government watchdog, following two fatal accidents involving Boeing aircraft in five months.
Dan Elwell, the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration, insisted his organisation was right to allow aircraft manufacturers to test their own jets, saying that not doing so would require vastly greater resources.
His comments came during the first Congressional hearing into two accidents involving Boeing 737 Max aircraft, which killed 346 people in all.
“Our certification processes are extensive, well-established, and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs for decades,” Mr Elwell told the members of the Senate aviation subcommittee.
He added: “If we had no ODA [delegated certification] at all, it would require roughly 10,000 more employees and about $1.8bn.”
Mr Elwell was speaking alongside Calvin Scovel, the inspector-general of the transport department, who issued a detailed criticism of some of the FAA’s processes.
Mr Scovel said in a written testimony released before the hearing: “Our work over the years on the ODA programme has identified management weaknesses with a number of [the] FAA’s oversight processes.”
He specifically mentioned that the FAA had not told inspectors how to identify the areas of highest risk, and that they did not do enough to oversee suppliers to companies such as Boeing.
He added that the FAA was due to overhaul its oversight processes in the coming months, saying: “By July 2019, FAA plans to introduce a new process that represents a significant change in its oversight approach.”
Senators from both the Republican and Democratic side of the committee were critical of the FAA’s oversight regime. Ted Cruz, the chairman of the subcommittee, said: “The questions that have been raised in the aftermath [of the two accidents] threaten to erode trust in the entire system.”
Senators spent much of the hearing quizzing officials on the flight control system, which an initial report suggested malfunctioned before last October’s Lion Air accident.
Several senators criticised the FAA for allowing Boeing to sell additional safety equipment that would have given pilots more information about the stabiliser system, rather than issuing it as standard. Mr Elwell said such equipment was not “safety critical”.
Elaine Chao, the transport secretary, said earlier on Wednesday it was “very questionable” why such features were not required.
Boeing has since clarified that it will fit such equipment as standard in the future.
Meanwhile, the company was working on a software fix that it said on Wednesday would “ensure that accidents like these will never happen again”.
In a briefing to outline the changes they are making, the company said the aircraft would use information from more than one sensor before activating the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) — part of its anti-stall system.
MCAS will only activate once, and not repeatedly, as happened last October, and pilots will be able to override it by pulling back on the control column, which pilots said would be more instinctive for those used to flying earlier versions of the 737. The software changes would take about an hour to complete, Boeing said.
Most of the proposed changes to the MCAS announced by Boeing were already known and had previously been mandated by the FAA in a directive the day after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines aircraft on March 10.
A Boeing official also repeatedly defended the MCAS system as initially designed, saying on Wednesday that pilots were always able to override it electrically or manually by flipping switches in the cockpit.
Pilots unions in the US have said that this was correct — but their ability to do so was hampered, particularly before the Lion Air crash, because they did not even know the MCAS system existed.
“We felt it was a serious breach of trust that we were not informed of the existence of the MCAS system, much less how to address any emergencies or failures,” Captain Jason Goldberg, spokesman for the American Airlines pilots association, told the Financial Times.
The pilots association for American Airlines, one of the largest US carriers operating the 737 Max aircraft, said they were “optimistic . . . but cautious” about the software fix revealed on Wednesday.
“We don’t want to see the certification process rushed or fast-tracked. The academic training needs to be in place for pilots, the fix should be carefully vetted by the regulatory agencies, and should take into account any further information gleaned from the Ethiopian investigation. We are looking forward to the return of the Max, but only when all stakeholders are certain that it’s ready.”