The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration defended the agency’s certification procedures involving the now-grounded Boeing 737 Max airplane, telling the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday that the process by which company-paid employees inspected their own aircraft was “a good system.”
The F.A.A. executive, Daniel Elwell, said his agency was reviewing a decades-old practice that allowed F.A.A.-certified employees at 79 aircraft manufacturers to assist in the certification of airplanes. But he said he supported the idea of delegating “certain tasks and certain decisions” in the certification process to private employees, despite criticism that the practice has led to lax oversight.
Mr. Elwell, a former pilot and industry lobbyist, faced two hours of questions from skeptical members of the committee, the first of several hearings the committee plans to hold about the regulator’s role in the wake of two fatal crashes involving the troubled airliner.
“How can we have a single point of failure on a modern aircraft?” asked Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and the committee’s chairman, who questioned whether the inspection system may have led to the problems with the airliner. “How was that certified? We shouldn’t have to be here today.”
Representative Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington who heads the Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation, pressed Mr. Elwell on the agency’s designee authorization process, and the F.A.A.’s role in the development of pilot training procedures for the 737 Max. Pilots were not told about an anti-stall system known as MCAS that was new to the plane and which played a role in both crashes.
[Read our article about how Boeing executives resisted pilots’ urgent calls to fix the 737 Max.]
“The committee’s investigation is just getting started, and it will take some time to get answers, but one thing is clear right now: The F.A.A. has a credibility problem,” Mr. Larsen said.
The 737 Max was grounded in March after an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people on board. Less than five months earlier, a Lion Air 737 Max flight went down in Indonesia, killing 189 people.
“I thought the MCAS should have been more adequately explained” to pilots around the world, Mr. Elwell said. He faced a number of questions about whether pilots were given proper training on changes to the plane’s navigation and stabilization systems.
The agency, Mr. Elwell said, delegates to the employees of manufacturers only those aspects of aircraft inspection that do not pertain directly to an aircraft’s core safety functions. But Mr. Elwell did acknowledge that the problems with MCAS were, indeed, considered a critical safety issue — raising new questions about whether Boeing employees should have been allowed to inspect it.
Mr. Elwell also said he was “not happy” with the 13-month lag between reports of a “software anomaly” involving a warning light that notifies pilots of a disagreement in sensors that measure which direction the plane is pointed, and Boeing’s actions to address the problem. Boeing discovered in 2017 that the warning light worked only on planes with an optional indicator that displayed the sensor readings. That indicator was sold as an add-on, and only 20 percent of 737 Max customers purchased it. Neither the Lion Air not the Ethiopian Airlines plane had it.
Still, Mr. Elwell said he did not believe that problem contributed to either crash.
Boeing is expected to soon submit a software fix that would keep the automated system from activating based on erroneous data, a factor in both crashes, according to agency investigators. An early version of the new software is being tested in simulators, F.A.A. officials said.
Mr. Elwell gave no timetable for when the plane might be cleared to fly again. He said the agency would only clear the planes on the recommendation of a multiagency technical advisory board made up of experts from the F.A.A., the Air Force, NASA and the Volpe National Transportation Systems Center who were not involved in the initial certification of the 737 Max.
F.A.A. officials convened a meeting with aviation officials from other countries this month to address their concerns about the plane, he said, an effort to bolster confidence in the “un-grounding” of the plane when it is finally approved.
Mr. Elwell was also pressed about why the F.A.A. did not ground the plane until China, much of Europe and Canada already had.
“Why did it take so long?” asked Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District of Columbia’s nonvoting delegate to the House.
“The public perception,” added Representative Dina Titus, a Democrat from Nevada, is that the F.A.A. “is in bed” with Boeing.
Mr. Elwell said the decision to ground the jets was based on consultations with Canadian authorities who provided radar tracking information that linked the two crashes to the MCAS system. He defended the F.A.A. as a “data-driven” organization and said that of the 24 reports of handling issues with the plane, “none” were related to MCAS.
He also suggested throughout the hearing that the inexperience and actions by the flight crews in both accidents might have contributed to the crashes.
“They never controlled the airspeeds,” he said.
Earl Lawrence, the agency’s executive director of aircraft certification, said the F.A.A. was in the process of establishing a new office to oversee the public-private inspection process. He added that the 737 Max was approved only after five years and 10,000 “man hours” of work.
“We take advantage of the expertise of the people who are designing and building the aircraft to assist us,” Mr. Lawrence said.
“I’m proud of my team,” he added of the federal employees who oversaw Boeing’s work.
Also on Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee questioned Stephen Dickson, the former Delta Air Lines executive whom President Trump has tapped to permanently lead the F.A.A., about the plane. He kept his responses relatively vague, saying regulators “must never rest” in their quest for a perfect safety record.
Over the past two months, Mr. DeFazio has requested a trove of documents from the F.A.A. and Boeing regarding the inspection process and the review undertaken to determine the safety of MCAS. He is especially focused on why Boeing did not require pilots to undergo further training with the anti-stall system.
Mr. DeFazio has received none of the requested documents yet, although the F.A.A. is expected to begin releasing documents to the committee soon. It is not clear when Boeing intends to reply — and Mr. DeFazio warned the manufacturer that it needed to supply the documents “voluntarily” or he would seek other means to the obtain them.
Senator Edward J. Markey, a Democrat of Massachusetts and a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also sent a request to Boeing for answers on its procedures. He has received a two-page later that referred to Mr. Elwell’s previous public statements but provided little new information.
At times, members of the committee seemed impatient with Mr. Elwell’s reluctance to provide detailed answers about what internal improvements the agency was planning to undertake.
For his part, Mr. Elwell expressed concern that the criticism of F.A.A.’s actions was having a negative impact on the agency.
“I’m a little bit worried about morale right now across the F.A.A.,” Mr. Elwell said.