Members of a Senate subcommittee clashed with Federal Aviation Administration officials Wednesday, contending the agency was too deferential to Boeing in approving the 737 Max airliner.
Senators cited newspaper reports of lax oversight as the jet and flight control software called MCAS were developed. The software, which points the plane’s nose down to avoid an aerodynamic stall, has been implicated in two deadly crashes.
Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, asked the officials about a report in The Wall Street Journal that the FAA let Boeing do an interim fix after an Indonesian Lion Air Max crashed in October, even though an analysis showed a risk of a similar cockpit emergency happening again. The agency instead notified pilots about how to turn off MCAS and waited for a safer, more permanent fix of the software from Boeing.
The Lion Air crash was followed in March by the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Max, with a total of 346 people dying in both.
FAA Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety Ali Bahrami replied that the scenario is true, saying the interim fix after the Lion Air crash was reviewed by FAA engineers and in line with normal practices. In the Indonesia crash, actions of the pilots played a significant role, Bahrami said, making it most urgent to tell pilots about the proper procedures to disable MCAS.
But Reed said there was no mention of improvements needed in MCAS, leaving an implication that there were no long-term issues with the software.
“That lack of transparency, I think, is not appropriate,” he said.
Bahrami told the Transportation subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee that it has a delicate balance between disclosing information that crash investigators want to keep private and taking safety actions.
“From a safety perspective we felt strongly that what we did was adequate” based on discussions with airlines and data collected at the time, he said.
However, Bahrami said knowing what the agency knows now, the FAA may have to revisit that decision.
Reed said he wants the FAA to stand up and say this aircraft is completely safe to fly, but that “doesn’t appear to be the case in this situation.”