Members of the House of Representatives’ aviation subcommittee had harsh words for leaders of the government’s two air safety agencies on Wednesday.
In a hearing on Capitol Hill, lawmakers fired blunt questions at Daniel Elwell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, and Robert Sumwalt, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, about the regulatory response to the two back-to-back crashes of Boeing 737 Max aircraft in the past year.
“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,” subcommittee chair Rick Larsen said in his opening remarks.
The agency was reportedly aware of problems with the plane’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) from pilots who experienced similar problems to those which are likely behind the crash of a Lion Air flight in October and another of Ethiopian Airlines in March, both of which crashed shortly after takeoff. The Wall Street Journal reported in May that Boeing knew of a software error that prevented the correct functioning of the MCAS alert system on the plane for over a year before notifying airlines and regulators.
The FAA’s approval processes for aircraft changes like those made to the 737 Max has also come under fire in the months since the aircraft’s grounding (the US was notably late to banning the model from its airspace, after many other major countries).
“We shouldn’t have to have tragedies to change the rules if the rules need to be changed,” Rep. Peter DeFazio told the committee. “We shouldn’t have to be here today.”
Elwell, who may soon be replaced with a permanent FAA head, pending the approval of President Donald Trump’s nominee to the post, defended the FAA’s practices and response to the crashes.
“The FAA welcomes scrutiny, it helps makes us better, that’s how our leadership in global aviation safety will endure,” he told the committee.
“Our commitment to fact-based and data-driven decision making has been the guiding principle in all of this.”
That wasn’t enough to calm Rep. Steve Cohen, who added to the fury: “Every country grounded the Max before we did. Every country,” he said.
“Is it because they were too quick to draw conclusion from two airplanes going down in similar circumstances and realizing the flying public should be protected in their countries?,” Cohen asked Elwell. “Or was it because we were just so much better at using data and not being concerned with the fact that there were two close to identical crashes? How were we last?”
The full investigation into the Ethiopian Airlines crash is ongoing. The FAA expects Boeing to submit its software fix for the plane “in the next week or so,” Elwell said, adding that the agency will only allow the plane to resume flights when it is “absolutely safe to do so… It’s important we get this right.”