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Daniel Elwell, acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration; arrives to testify before a House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Aviation Subcommittee hearing on the "status of the Boeing 737 MAX" on Capitol Hill in Washington, on May 15, 2019. Photo by Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Lawmakers grill FAA chief about Boeing 737 MAX safety concerns

WASHINGTON (AP) — The nation’s top aviation regulator assured Congress on Wednesday that the Boeing 737 MAX, grounded after two deadly accidents, will only return to flying when a government analysis shows that it is safe.

The Federal Aviation Administration is under scrutiny for how it relied on Boeing to certify the MAX and then didn’t ground the plane until after the second crash, in March.

Acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell told the House aviation subcommittee that his agency “welcomes scrutiny that helps make us better.”

Elwell listed several reviews of the FAA’s handling of the matter, adding, however, that only the FAA would decide when the MAX is safe enough to allow back in the air.

“In the U.S., the 737 MAX will return to service only when the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is safe to do so,” Elwell said.

House Aviation subcommittee Chairman Rick Larsen said he expects answers about the FAA’s certification of the MAX, the role of Boeing employees in assessing key features on the plane, and FAA’s role in developing pilot training for the plane.

“The FAA has a credibility problem,” he said.

Larsen added a note of economic urgency to the grounding of the MAX, Boeing’s best-selling plane and one that is built in his home state of Washington. He said Congress must help make the public feel safe about flying because “if they don’t fly, airlines don’t need to buy airplanes,” and “then there will be no jobs” in aircraft manufacturing.

Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., criticized Boeing for pilot manuals that didn’t mention a new automated flight-control system implicated in both accidents, and for a design that pitched the plane’s nose down based on readings from a single sensor that could fail.

The two plane crashes in Ethiopia in March and in Indonesia last October killed 346 people.

DeFazio, who heads the full Transportation Committee, also said Boeing hasn’t yet provided documents that he and Larsen requested, saying he hoped the company would provide them voluntarily and soon.

“Boeing has yet to provide a single document,” he said. “We’ve got to get to the bottom of this.”

Boeing is already the subject of a criminal investigation by the Justice Department. Boeing customers Southwest Airlines and American Airlines and their pilot unions have received subpoenas related to that investigation; United Airlines, which also flew the MAX until it was grounded in March, declined to comment, although its pilot union confirmed that it too has received a subpoena.

The Transportation Department’s inspector general and a Senate committee are looking into the FAA’s relationship with Boeing, and the House subcommittee is likely to follow a similar path.

The hearing before the House panel is expected to cover the FAA’s review of a flight-control system on the MAX that was not present on earlier versions of the 737. In both accidents, the automated flight system pushed the nose of the plane down and pilots were unable to regain control.

The Dallas Morning News reported that American Airlines pilots pressed Boeing in November — shortly after the first MAX crash — on potentially grounding the planes and pushed for a quick software fix from the plane maker.

“We don’t want to do a crappy job of fixing things, and we also don’t want to fix the wrong things,” a Boeing employee responded, according to a recording reviewed by the newspaper.

Elwell was scheduled to be joined at the House hearing by Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board. No Boeing representative was scheduled to testify.

Across Capitol Hill, a Senate committee was scheduled to hear from President Donald Trump’s pick to lead the agency on a permanent basis. The nominee, Stephen Dickson, is a former military and airline pilot and Delta Air Lines executive.

In testimony prepared for the confirmation hearing, Dickson said safety would be his top priority if he is confirmed, and that making sure the FAA keeps its standing as the world’s top safety agency would be a major part of that.

U.S. aviation has an enviable safety record over the past decade, Dickson said, but the industry is only as good as the last takeoff or landing.

The FAA has not had a permanent director since January 2018.

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