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House Panel Has Sharp Questions For FAA Officials About Boeing 737 Max


Lawmakers sure had questions for the Federal Aviation Administration. Its top official, Daniel Elwell, was on Capitol Hill yesterday for a hearing. He faced questions about the agency's certification and eventual grounding of Boeing's 737 Max fleet after two jets crashed, killing nearly 350 people.

NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Lawmakers pounded FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell. Tennessee Congressman Steve Cohen couldn't understand why the FAA took so long to ground the 737 Max following the crash in Ethiopia, a crash clearly similar to the Lion Air accident in Indonesia five months before.


STEVE COHEN: Every country grounded the Max before we did - every country. How were we last?

LEWIS: Nevada Congresswoman Dina Titus wondered about the public's perception of the FAA and the decisions it's made about Boeing.


DINA TITUS: We were the last ones to do it - is because the FAA was just too cozy with Boeing; that you were in bed with those that you were supposed to be regulating. And that's why it took so long.

LEWIS: The FAA's close working relationship with Boeing prompted Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio to question the implementation of a brand-new automated flight-control system.


PETER DEFAZIO: Until after Lion Air, the pilots didn't know the system was installed. Is that correct?


LEWIS: That software system, known as MCAS, played a role in both crashes. Not long after takeoff of each doomed jet, the system triggered and ferociously yanked down the nose of the plane. Elwell acknowledged in his testimony that Boeing should have alerted pilots to the new MCAS system. But he defended the FAA's long-standing policy of allowing manufacturers like Boeing to conduct their own inspections as part of the initial certification. Boeing says it's close to finishing a software update of the 737 Max automated flight-control system. Elwell expects it to be turned over to the FAA in a week or so. And he insists the update will undergo rigorous testing.


ELWELL: We will not allow the 737 Max to fly in the U.S. until it is absolutely safe to do so. And we will use every tool, every data-gathering capability we have to ensure that's the case.

LEWIS: Relatives of some of those who died attended yesterday's meeting. Committee members made a point of acknowledging them and pledged to honor their loss by making the aviation system safer and better.

Russell Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Russell Lewis
As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.