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Does handling of Boeing safety issue reveal ‘fundamental conflict’ for the FAA?

In the aftermath of a second deadly plane crash, Boeing is trying to reassure the U.S. government and the public that it is addressing the flight control system on its 737 MAX jets. The feature is suspected of a role in the fatal Ethiopian Airlines incident in March as well as an October Lion Air crash. Amna Nawaz reports and talks to science correspondent Miles O’Brien for technical details.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Boeing sought to reassure the aviation industry and the flying public today that it is sufficiently fixing its air control systems on the 737 MAX jets that are suspected of playing a role in two recent plane crashes.

    The company said it is close to submitting software updates to the FAA for review this week. This all comes more than two weeks since a 737 MAX operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed shortly after takeoff, killing all 157 on board.

    And, as Amna Nawaz tells us, it came as the acting head of the FAA was called before a Senate subcommittee this afternoon for a hearing.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Judy, senators pursued several lines of questioning now part of the national conversation. Were there adequate safety inspections for the 737 MAX initially by regulators? Are the regulators too close to the industry itself? And have cost considerations affected safety?

    We will look at all of that and what Boeing has pledged to do. The aerospace giant said the flight control system, which was suspected of pushing the jets downward in those crashes, will now be fed information by two sensors, instead of just one.

    Its maneuvering of the plane will not be as dramatic. And there will be some new computer training for pilots as well.

    Our own aviation specialist, Miles O'Brien, has been watching all of this, and he joins me now from San Francisco.

    Miles, good to talk to you.

    You heard what Boeing has now proposed. Do those proposals quiet the concerns?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's going to help, Amna.

    And I think this idea that only one sensor was feeding that software, which could, in effect, take control of the aircraft and send it into a nosedive, was a fundamental flaw. That's a single-point failure. And so insisting that two sensors can check each other, feed that system, and that, if there's a discrepancy, it can discount that, is a key factor.

    Also, one of the things that pilots assume in these cases is that, if they pull back on the yoke, the wheel, in that situation, they will be able to override what the system is doing to the aircraft. In this case, the MCAS system that was designed as this anti-stall measure may have had a little too much authority. They couldn't overcome it.

    So I think this will help. It will quiet some fears. We have to watch to see how this is implemented. It will take some time before it's fully brought on aboard to the fleet.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Miles, there are some questions on pilot training, too. There was a recent report that sparked a lot of concern that, in a simulated recreation of the Lion Air flight, the one that crashed off the coast of Indonesia, pilots had less than 40 seconds to react and override the system.

    What did you hear about pilot training that addresses that concern?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, it's interesting, because every pilot is trained to defeat what is called runaway trim, meaning the aircraft automatic system are adjusting its pitch in the air.

    It's a procedure which, number one, they might pull back on the yoke, but they would have two switches that they would disconnect. That's the exact same procedure that the pilots would use in this instance. The question is, did those flight crews fully recognize that that was what was happening in that case?

    In the case of Lion Air, they had very little time to do anything about it, recognize the problem, identify it, and take the action that would prevent it. So what happens in some cases like this, Amna, is, the pilots have a difficulty diagnosing what's really going on with the aircraft, focus on the wrong thing, and, in the meantime, the airplane crashes.

    Years ago, there was an Eastern Airlines L-1011 that crashed into the Everglades. The pilots were focused on a broken landing gear light that was out, and they lost altitude and flew right into the Everglades because they weren't focused on the big picture. The problem is, you have to identify things so quickly.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So there were a couple of specific safety features that came up in questions today. Senator Markey was asking one particularly pointed line, focusing in on two things that he says are not required safety features, one called the AOA indicator, the angle on attack indicator, and another warning light.

    He was put something pretty firm questions to the acting administrator of the FAA.

    Let's take a listen to what he had to say.

  • Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.:

    Should all of the safety features been mandatory that could have alerted pilots and mechanics to issues with the sensors? Should they have been mandatory, yes or no?

  • Daniel Elwell:

    Senator, safety-critical pieces of equipment on an aircraft are mandatory. That's what certification does.

  • Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass.:

    Should the FAA ban the practice of airlines selling safety features a la carte to the airlines, yes or no?

  • Daniel Elwell:

    Sen. Markey, I will tell you that if there is any manufacturer that sells a safety critical part a la carte, we will not permit it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Miles, the question there is, were business priorities put ahead of safety priorities? What did you make of that?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    The airline industry, when in doubt, generally will take the cheaper route, if it can. It's a tough business. It's a competitive business, and they will meet the requirements.

    Having said that, airlines in the United States, American Airlines among them, actually did have these angle of attack indicators on the cockpit display for the pilots to make a decision one way or the other if, number one, the wing was in the right altitude, and, number two, if there was a discrepancy between the two angle of attack indicators.

    So, yes, it's good to have those kinds of safety measures. They should be mandated, but, really, for example, those two angle of attack instruments should have been feeding that automatic system in the first place. So the real question is, who is deciding what is mandatory and what is optional here?

    In many cases, it seems as if that decision lies more in the case with the manufacturer of the airliner, less with the FAA. And that's an important thing we need to look at. Who is actually regulating things — these things, making these very critical decisions as an aircraft is brought to market?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    You mentioned the regulators there.

    It was another line of questioning that came up again and again, the alleged coziness between the regulators in this case the FAA and the airline industry and how that may have impacted the FAA's reluctance to ground the planes, even after a number of other countries had grounded them.

    How did you take the questions and the answers in today's hearing?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, you have got to look at the origins of the FAA.

    It was — the old Civil Aeronautics Authority was created to promote and regulate aviation. Well, on its face, that is a conflicts of interest. There is a fundamental conflict in the FAA's mission, which it tries to sort out. But it doesn't always work out so well.

    On top of that, they're underfunded, do not have enough people to be on the factory floor every moment looking — being a part of every single decision in creating a complex airliner. And so what they do is, they give a lot of authority to the manufacturer itself to regulate itself.

    So there are conflicts of interest embedded in conflicts of interest here. It probably would be wise to give the FAA a little more funding and a little more manpower and person power to actually be on the ground helping make these decisions and actually regulating in a more meaningful way.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Miles O'Brien with some important context for us there in San Francisco.

    Thank you, Miles. Good to talk to you.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Amna.

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