Less than a week ago, Boeing top executive Dennis Muilenburg held firm to projections that the company’s grounded 737 MAX jets would win approval to return to the skies by year’s end.
But at least one member of the Senate committee that grilled Muilenburg on Tuesday suggested the troubled aircraft shouldn’t be flying again until a much-maligned Federal Aviation Administration oversight program retreats from its practice of delegating authority to Boeing and other aerospace manufacturers.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal — citing revelations in recent news reports of a Boeing engineer’s claims that the MAX’s safety was compromised by cost and schedule considerations, and that the company pushed to undercut regulatory oversight — pushed back against findings that the FAA’s practice of delegating more safety certification authority is only likely to increase.
“The story of Boeing sabotaging rigorous safety scrutiny is chilling to all of us — and more reason to keep the 737 MAX grounded until certification is really and truly independent and the system is reformed,” said Blumenthal, D-Conn.
Blumenthal’s comments came during the latter part of the Senate Transportation Committee’s hearing on the MAX.
After the panel finished with Muilenburg, it turned its attention to absorbing the findings of two recent investigations into how the troubled Max won FAA certification in the first place.
Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, summarized findings for the panel of an in-depth review into the “design certification processes used to certify the MAX.”
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An NTSB report issued last month offered seven recommendations — which lawmakers since have introduced into legislation — partly based on findings that Sumwalt said Boeing “did not use realistic pilot recognition and corrective actions” when assessing risks associated with its Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.
The powerful new flight-control software introduced on the MAX was triggered by a single, defective sensor, causing it to push the ill-fated jets’ noses down.
“What Boeing failed to account for in their assumptions is to consider MCAS could have failed for another reason — the MCAS could’ve activated because of a failure of the angle of attack, which would have led to numerous other alerts and warnings in the cockpit,” Sumwalt told the committee.
Also addressing the panel was Christopher Hart, a former NTSB chairman and pilot who chaired the Joint Authorities Technical Review, tasked with determining whether the MAX’s certification process applied and complied with appropriate regulations, and to recommend improvements.
Hart said that the increasing complexity of aircraft designs is raising questions about “whether a (certification) process that has been based largely upon compliance should address safety.”
“As systems become more complex, the likelihood increases that compliance with applicable regulations does not necessarily ensure safety,” he said.
Still, Hart said that JATR members found that the much-maligned FAA aircraft certification process that delegates some oversight authority to manufacturers likely only will “become more prevalent as regulators encounter increasing difficulty hiring and retaining technology leaders.”