FAA Head Will Face Grilling From Senators Over His Agency's Ties To Boeing

The Boeing 737 factory in Renton, Wash. Investigators looking into the reason for two recent crashes have focused on software that was installed on the 737 Max.
The Boeing 737 factory in Renton, Wash. Investigators looking into the reason for two recent crashes have focused on software that was installed on the 737 Max.
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration will appear Wednesday before a Senate subcommittee, where he's expected to face tough questions about the agency's actions following two plane crashes off the cost of Indonesia and in Ethiopia.

Daniel Elwell will testify before the aviation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee about the agency's relationship with Boeing, the manufacturer of the plane involved in both crashes, the 737 Max.

The FAA grounded the plane after the second crash on March 10, but only after governments all over the world had already done so.

Investigators looking into the reason for the crashes have focused on computer software that was installed on the 737 Max following a redesign of the plane. The system is meant to stabilize the plane, but apparently failed in each case, causing the aircraft's nose to drop repeatedly.

In opening remarks obtained by NPR, Elwell defends the FAA's process for reviewing and certifying changes to plane designs, saying, "The FAA is directly involved in the testing and certification of new and novel features and technologies."

These procedures are "extensive, well established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs for decades," the remarks say.

Elwell also details the steps taken to investigate the plane after the first crash in the Java Sea on Oct. 29. Data collected by the FAA "showed no systemic performance issues and provided no basis to order grounding the
aircraft," the statement says.

Critics maintain that the FAA has become too close to Boeing and point to a revolving door between the agency and the industry, with personnel moving back and forth between the regulator and the company.

Some of the harshest questions are expected to involve the FAA's controversial Organization Designation Authority, which allows Boeing to inspect and regulate itself when making design changes.

"Safety experts have long raised concerns that the ... program leaves the fox in charge of the hen house," wrote Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, in a March 19th letter to the Transportation Department's Inspector-General.

"Under that program, employees of the aircraft manufacturers — who are hired and can be fired by those manufacturers — are responsible not only for quality control during the aircraft manufacturing process but for certifying that aircraft are safe," Blumenthal added.

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