Senators Press FAA Officials on MAX Certification Procedure and UAS Rules

In the wake of recent reporting in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal regarding the certification process for the Boeing 737 MAX and the extent of Boeing’s involvement in the regulatory process, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development held a hearing on oversight of the FAA on July 31.

Witnesses included:

  • Carl Burleson, Acting Deputy Administrator
  • Ali Bahrami, Associate Administrator for Aviation Safety
  • Winsome Lenfert, Deputy Associate Administrator for Airports
  • Angela Stubblefield, Deputy Associate Administrator for Security/Hazardous Materials Safety

The first round of statements and questioning largely focused on allegations of relaxed FAA oversight of the 737 MAX certification and the agency’s role in integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) into the nation’s airspace.

Burleson’s opening statement largely highlighted recent FAA measures to better integrate UAS and commercial space activities into U.S. airspace and reduce congestion at the nation’s airports. Among these measures are the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) data-sharing platform, which provides UAS airspace authorization within seconds and allows air traffic controllers to see where and when drones are in operation, and the Terminal Flight Departure Manager, a new interface beginning operational testing this summer that will use more robust schedule data to develop a virtual departure queue at airports, reducing idling and improving traffic management.

On the other hand, Bahrami’s opening statement focused almost entirely on the controversy surrounding the MAX certification process. Bahrami forcefully defended the FAA’s handling of the MAX investigation and asserting that the agency is “…following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline” to return the MAX to service. He also emphasized the FAA’s role in developing new training requirements, supporting investigations and audits, and initiating a Technical Advisory board review of Boeing’s MCAS update.

The MCAS system (short for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), was designed to help the redesigned MAX handle more smoothly during high-speed maneuvers by automatically adjusting the plane’s nose using data from the angle of attack sensor. In both of the MAX incidents, faulty data from one of the angle of attack sensors suggested the plane’s nose was higher than it actually was, prompting MCAS to push the plane’s nose down.

Both subcommittee chairman Susan Collins (R-ME) and ranking minority member Jack Reed (D-RI) pressed witnesses about the July 27 New York Times article reporting that FAA managers appeared more concerned with Boeing’s production timeline than the safety of the MAX, and that Boeing certified up to 96% of its own work as a result of the agency delegating routine certification tasks.

Burleson noted that the reporting “offered a perspective” but defended the MAX’s five-year certification process and delegation processes, claiming that the FAA has never allowed “self-certification” and that the agency’s longstanding practice of delegation has contributed to its exceptional safety record. Burleson further defended the FAA as having been fully knowledgeable throughout the certification process and involved in determining the extent of delegation from the beginning of the certification. However, Burleson acknowledged the agency’s willingness to consider a new balance of delegation as it assesses both past and future certification procedures.

Bahrami was further questioned about conflicting reports surrounding the FAA’s initial emergency directive after the crash of Lion Air Flight 610. Reed cited a July 31 Wall Street Journal article reporting that the FAA’s internal analysis after the Lion Air crash found a high likelihood of a similar emergency occurring in the near future. In response, the FAA issued an emergency directive notifying pilots of the risks of the malfunctioning angle of attack sensor and reminding them how to counteract the malfunction by following procedures for a similar issue, a runaway stabilizer, that causes an aircraft’s nose to be pushed down.

According to the report, the FAA believed the directive would be a sufficient response as it awaited a more permanent fix from Boeing within 10 months. Senator Reed noted that this report contradicts past FAA statements that seemed to suggest that the notification was a sufficient response to the MCAS malfunction and that no long-term fix was needed.

Bahrami defended the FAA’s handling of the Lion Air accident, noting that preliminary investigations found pilot action to be a contributor to the crash, which prompted the FAA to issue its directive until further fixes were developed. When pressed  on why the FAA did not disclose the need for a permanent fix, Bahrami explained that the FAA must strike a delicate balance between adequately resolving safety issues in the wake of an accident and avoiding disclosure of sensitive information from investigators about the potential causes due to the FAA’s agreements with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), invoking his experience as a pilot, further berated the MAX certification process, asking why pilots only had to receive as little as one hour of iPad training to fly the MAX despite major changes to the underlying dynamics of the aircraft as compared to earlier planes in the 737 family.

Noting one of the MAX’s major selling points that current 737 pilots would require minimal retraining; Manchin characterized the MAX as a largely redesigned aircraft despite sharing the same airframe as the previous generation 737. As reported by The New York Times, the MCAS system was originally intended to operate in the background under limited circumstances and only minimally affect the MAX’s pitch.

However, even after Boeing overhauled the MCAS system to enable its use in low-speed maneuvers instead of just high-speed ones, it was not required to submit a formal review of the new system nor inform pilots about MCAS, leading Boeing not mentioning the system in the pilot’s manual.

In response, Bahrami defended the decision not to require further training, explaining that decisions about training are not made by one individual, but rather through the Flight Standardization Board. During aircraft redesigns, pilots convene through this group to compare changes in the new model to the past model, then review the training syllabus to decide what changes are necessary. Bahrami further noted that this Board felt the existing computer-based training for the MCAS was sufficient for MAX pilots, noting the need to ensure sufficient training without overwhelming pilots with excessively technical information. In defending this decision, Bahrami explained that the MCAS was supposed to work transparently in the background but acknowledged that given what is now known about the MCAS, the agency should have included more information about the system.

While the MAX certification was at the forefront of Wednesday’s hearing, other members of the subcommittee raised other concerns. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) raised the issue of sexual assault on airplanes and the lack of information victims have regarding how best to report these incidents.

When asked if the agency had any updates on the progress of the In-Flight Sexual Misconduct Task Force which the USDOT was required to create to establish better practices, Burleson explained that the agency was awaiting guidance from the task force on how to best adopt recommendations and noted the Attorney General has been working across agencies to determine how best to determine metrics for data collection and reporting. In response, Murray urged the FAA to act swiftly and ensure actions outside of the task force are being taken to help victims as it awaits recommendations.

Sen. John Hoeven (R-ND)  asked for an update on the timeline for the FAA’s development of a remote identification rule for UAS. Stubblefield acknowledged frustration with the timeline and explained several factors affecting how quickly the agency could develop the rule, including the fact that UAS did not have authority over all UAS in U.S. airspace until Congress restored its authority last October.

Additionally, the FAA has been working with industry groups to establish industry standards as well as the necessary infrastructure to communicate information to law enforcement and other actors to ensure proper execution of the rule. Despite these factors, Stubblefield said the agency is working to finalize the rule this year.

As the grounding of the 737 MAX enters its fifth month, its repercussions have continued to ripple across the industry. Southwest Airlines recently halted operations at Newark Liberty Airport in the wake of declining earnings and increased costs associated with the plane’s grounding. European budget airline Ryanair similarly put the brakes on its future expansion plans amid similar operational constraints; as Boeing itself mulls a temporary shutdown of MAX production if the grounding persists. While Boeing has eyed a return to service by October 2019, agency officials have emphasized there is no timeline or target on when to expect the MAX to return to the skies.

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