• Congressional committees are holding hearings today on federal oversight of the aviation industry, including how Boeing’s 737 Max plane, which has been involved in two deadly crashes, was certified.
• Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation, faced a number of questions about the 737 Max.
• Lawmakers pressed Ms. Chao about the relationship between the Federal Aviation Administration and companies it regulates, like Boeing.
• Boeing executives are meeting with about 200 pilots, airline executives and regulators in Renton, Wash., to review proposed changes to the 737 Max.
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Senators convene in the East and industry leaders in the West
The busy day on Capitol Hill began at 10 a.m. when the Senate Appropriations Committee’s transportation subcommittee convened a hearing with Elaine Chao, the secretary of transportation. The hearing was ostensibly about the Transportation Department’s budget request for the 2020 fiscal year, but lawmakers used it to question her about the 737 Max.
“Let me emphasize that safety is always No. 1 at the Department of Transportation, and a good day is when nothing bad happens,” Ms. Chao said in her opening statement. Of the Ethiopian Airlines crash this month in which 157 people died, she added, “We all have a lot of important questions about this accident.”
Over the course of the two-hour hearing, Ms. Chao faced questions on a variety of issues related to the 737 Max, including the F.A.A.’s reliance on manufacturers in the certification process, the existence of optional safety features for the Max and why the F.A.A. did not move more quickly to ground the plane after the crash in Ethiopia.
At 3 p.m., the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation subcommittee will hold a hearing on aviation safety, with a focus on the recent crashes. Scheduled to testify are Daniel K. Elwell, the F.A.A.’s acting administrator; Robert L. Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board; and Calvin L. Scovel III, the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
Hours before Mr. Scovel’s appearance, his office formally announced that it would conduct an audit of the F.A.A.’s certification of the 737 Max, as Ms. Chao had requested last week.
There is also plenty of activity at Boeing’s offices in Renton. The company, which initially had little to say since the crash in Ethiopia and the crisis it has faced since, held an early-morning briefing for reporters, followed by a factory tour. Later in the day, Boeing executives — though not the chief executive, Dennis A. Muilenburg — were meeting with about 200 pilots, airline executives and regulators to review proposed changes to the 737 Max.
2 accidents raise safety questions
In October, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed just minutes after taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 189 people. Then, on March 10, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 also crashed minutes after takeoff, killing everyone on board. Both accidents involved Boeing’s 737 Max 8 jets. Investigations into both crashes are continuing, but preliminary flight data and other evidence have suggested similarities between the two accidents. Investigators are examining whether an automated system designed to help the plane avoid stalling may have been partly to blame.
In the days after the Ethiopian accident, global regulators grounded the jets. Those in China were the first to do so, and other governments around the world quickly followed suit.
While the planes are grounded, Boeing is working on a software update that would change the way the system suspected in the crashes operates. The company is also working on outlining new training procedures for pilots who fly 737 Max planes, and will retrofit jets with a safety feature that was previously optional. The feature will be standard on new Max planes.
Committee members pressed Ms. Chao on whether she would require Boeing to install safety features on all 737 Max planes.
“I don’t think we’re there yet, but 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,” Ms. Chao said.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, said she was considering introducing a bill that would require aircraft manufacturers to include all available safety features in the base price of an airplane.
“To have two planes go down allegedly from the same problem within a limited period of time with a lot of people aboard says we’re doing something wrong, to me,” Ms. Feinstein said. “I feel very strongly that key safety equipment should be included in the basic sale price of a plane.”
The F.A.A.’s regulatory practices face scrutiny
The F.A.A. has long allowed plane makers to help certify that their new aircraft meet safety standards. Ms. Chao called the practice “necessary,” though it is coming under increased scrutiny.
Boeing, through the Organization Designation Authorization program, was able to choose its own employees to help some 400 government regulators certify the 737 Max. When asked by Ms. Collins whether the relationship “sacrifices potentially the safety of the traveling public,” Ms. Chao said that the possibility was “troubling.”
“I am, of course, concerned about any allegations of coziness with any company, manufacturer, whatever,” she said, later adding: “We should have absolute confidence in the regulators, that they are certifying properly.”
But she added that the government has delegated certification duties to the aviation industry since the 1920s.
“This is not a new procedure,” she said. “It has been expanded over the years.”
Ms. Chao stressed that the F.A.A. sets safety standards that airlines must meet while developing aviation technology. The certification process, she said, “is, of course, subject to oversight and supervision by the F.A.A.”
“This method of having the manufacturer also be involved in looking at these standards is really necessary, because once again, the F.A.A. cannot do it on their own,” she said. “They need to have the input from the manufacturer.”
How did the software system come to be?
Boeing developed the 737 Max as the latest move in its rivalry with Airbus, the European plane manufacturer. When Airbus announced a more fuel-efficient version of its A320, the main competitor to the 737, Boeing risked losing major customers like American Airlines if it didn’t develop its own, more fuel-efficient planes.
In order to respond to Airbus’s new plane as quickly as possible, Boeing decided to update its popular 737 instead of designing a new plane from scratch. To make the 737 more fuel efficient, Boeing gave it bigger engines. However, that update changed the plane’s aerodynamics and made it prone to stall in certain conditions.
To reduce the risk of stalling, Boeing developed a software system that became known as MCAS. It made the 737 Max fly more like previous versions of the plane, but pilots were not explicitly informed about how it worked.