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FAA Head Defends Agency After Two Boeing Plane Crashes

Airplane flying above clouds

The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration Daniel Elwell defended the FAA against Senate criticism on Wednesday, March 27. According to Forbes, a Senate subcommittee criticized the FAA for waiting too long to ground the Boeing 737 Max planes after two fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Elwell said the FAA waited longer than other countries to order the grounding of the planes because the organization wanted to collect flight data to better understand how the Ethiopian Airlines crash happened.

“We may have been, I think someone said, the last country to ground the aircraft but the United States and Canada were the first countries to ground the aircraft with data,” said Elwell.

The Senate subcommittee asked Elwell whether the pilots involved in the accidents were adequately trained on how to use the aircraft’s latest technology. About 131,500 aircraft mechanics were employed in 2017, and new software had been installed on the Boeing planes to help stabilize the aircraft.

Recent reports indicate that the pilot involved in the Lion Air crash had struggled to keep the plane’s nose from falling minutes before the accident.

“That is not an image that instills comfort or confidence,” said subcommittee chair Ted Cruz, R-Texas, “and it does not suggest that the pilot is aware of how to adjust for the system that is adjusting the nose downward.”

Elwell said it would take some time to determine what caused the pilots involved in the accidents to have difficulty with the planes. The FAA uses a panel of pilots from around the world to test software changes on simulators that are monitored by engineers and experts.

The engineers monitor the simulators to detect if there are any differences in flight characteristics or if the pilots show difficulty handling the new software of the airplane. Elwell said the panel of pilots decided new training wasn’t necessary.

The FAA is currently making recommendations on improving training for foreign airlines. Elwell said they’re considering whether to exert more influence through internal auditors, who are used for assurance services, over airlines that fly to the United States.

Despite these potential improvements, the subcommittee questioned Elwell about an FAA program that allows some airlines to certify changes to plane design internally. Under the program, employees of aircraft manufacturers are responsible for quality control and aircraft safety certifications.

“Safety experts have long raised concerns that the program leaves the fox in charge of the hen house,” said Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut.

Elwell defended the FAA’s process for reviewing and certifying changes in plane designs. He closed his remarks by telling Congress that if the FAA were to conduct safety certifications on its own, the agency would need $1.8 billion in funding and 10,000 more employees.