The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to significantly revamp its oversight of airplane construction this summer after questions were raised about how it manages inspections done by the industry, according to testimony prepared for a Senate subcommittee hearing scheduled for yesterday.
The testimony by US Department of Transportation Inspector-General Calvin Scovel, who monitors the FAA and other agencies, said his office has found management weaknesses with a number of the FAA’s oversight processes over the years.
FAA oversight and its program to allow manufacturers and airlines to have their own employees do inspections will be examined at the hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation subcommittee.
The panel was scheduled to question Scovel and FAA Acting Administration Daniel Elwell during the hearing, which comes as the FAA is under increasing scrutiny for its flight approval of the Boeing 737 Max jet.
The officials are expected to face questions from lawmakers on the FAA’s certification of the 737 MAX — and whether regulators have become too cozy with the company and fast-tracked some approvals.
Two of the Boeing jets have crashed in the past six months in Indonesia and Ethiopia with deadly consequences, and investigators are examining the role of flight-control software that Boeing designed to prevent aerodynamic stalls.
Yesterday’s hearing is set to be followed by a second one at a later date with Boeing, airline pilots and other stakeholders.
Engineers have been focusing on problems with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a stall prevention system designed to point the nose of the 737 MAX 8 downward if it is in danger of stalling, or losing lift.
The system has been criticized since it can malfunction and make it difficult for pilots to control the aircraft; both of the recent crashes occurred moments after takeoff.
While the FAA has made improvements to its oversight program, it plans by July to develop new evaluation criteria for training and company self-audits, Scovel wrote in his prepared remarks obtained by reporters.
“While revamping FAA’s oversight process will be an important step, continued management attention will be key to ensure the agency identifies and monitors the highest-risk areas of aircraft certification,” Scovel wrote.
Elwell is to defend his agency’s certification of the 737 Max and its initial resistance to ground the planes until all other major aviation regulators around the world had done so.
He is also to say that Boeing submitted proposed changes in key flight-control software to its 737 Max jetliner in January and that the FAA is still reviewing the aircraft manufacturer’s plans for the software update and more pilot training.
He calls the FAA’s review “an agency priority.”
The New York Times on Monday reported that pilots from five airlines tested current and updated software on a Boeing flight simulator.
During a test that recreated conditions on the Lion Air flight that crashed in October last year, the pilots had less than 40 seconds to override the software before the plane uncontrollably plunged toward the ground, the newspaper said, citing two unidentified people involved in the testing.
Pilots can flip one switch to reverse a move by the software to point the nose down, and they can disable the software by flipping two switches at their knees.
Pilots involved in the simulator testing followed those steps and kept the plane under control using the current anti-stall software, the newspaper reported.
The Lion Air pilots, on the other hand, had received little training on the system, and it was only after the plane crashed that Boeing first notified pilots of the system’s existence.
In related news, a Southwest Airlines Max 8, one of 34 in the carrier’s fleet, had to make an emergency landing on Tuesday shortly after takeoff in Orlando, Florida, cutting short a flight to a short-term aircraft storage lot in California. The plane was not carrying passengers.
The airline and the FAA said the plane had a problem with one of its engines, not the flight-control software.
Additional reporting by AFP
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