WASHINGTON/ADDIS ABABA – The U.S. aviation regulator will significantly change its oversight approach to air safety by July following two fatal Boeing Co Max 737 passenger plane crashes, according to written congressional testimony seen by Reuters.
At a U.S. Senate panel hearing on Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) acting head Dan Elwell will say the agency’s oversight approach must “evolve” after the deadly crashes, according to the testimony.
The aviation industry has been thrown into flux by a Lion Air crash in Indonesia last October that killed 189 people and an Ethiopian Airlines disaster on March 10 that killed 157, both involving Boeing’s 737 Max single-aisle plane.
A spokesman for Ethiopia’s transport ministry, which is leading an investigation in Addis Ababa, told Reuters the preliminary crash report would very likely be released this week. The initial report will begin to paint a more detailed picture of what went wrong during flight ET 302’s six minutes in the air, likely with huge consequences for the plane’s manufacturer and the airline.
Boeing’s best-selling jet, with orders worth more than $500 billion at list prices, has been grounded globally.
Elwell will also say that the 737 Max will return to service “only when the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is appropriate.”
The Max software is among the leading areas of focus for investigations into the two crashes.
Elwell’s testimony discloses that Boeing first submitted a proposed upgrade to its anti-stall software — which aviation experts have identified as a potential factor in both crashes — to the FAA for certification on Jan. 21.
Boeing is expected as early as Wednesday to unveil more details of the software upgrade to the Max’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, known as MCAS. The company did not comment on Tuesday on the upgrade, but said it would closely monitor the congressional hearing.
Elwell will tell the panel that the FAA was “directly involved” in the review of MCAS, and that its certification was “detailed and thorough.”
U.S. Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel will also testify to the panel on oversight changes.
“While revamping FAA’s oversight process will be an important step, continued management attention will be key to ensure the agency identifies and monitors the highest-risk areas of aircraft certification,” said Scovel’s written testimony, which was seen by Reuters.
According to Scovel, new FAA rules that took effect on March 12 require air carriers to train pilots for “specific abnormal flight conditions,” including stall recovery.
But Scovel’s testimony says “despite requiring these training maneuvers to be practiced in flight simulators, simulators remain unavailable for some new aircraft, including the Boeing Max series.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio, who chairs the U.S. House of Representatives Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he was sending a letter from lawmakers on Tuesday urging the FAA to engage an independent, third-party review of Boeing’s proposed changes to the 737 Max before it is returned to service.
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is also examining the FAA’s certification process, chairman Robert Sumwalt will tell the Senate, according to his testimony seen by Reuters.
Boeing is this week briefing airlines on software and training updates for the Max, with more than 200 global airline pilots, technical experts and regulators due in Renton, Washington, where the plane is built.
As well as FAA approval, any Max software fixes will need a green light from governments around the world, a process that could take months.
Boeing’s software fix for the 737 Max will prevent repeated operation of the anti-stall system and deactivate it altogether if two sensors disagree widely, two people familiar with pilot briefings told Reuters on Monday.
Upgrading an individual 737 Max with Boeing’s new software only takes about an hour per plane, though the overall process could stretch on far longer as it is rolled out across the global fleet because of stringent testing and documentation requirements by engineers and regulators, according to a senior FAA official with knowledge of the process.
Ethiopian and French investigators have pointed to “clear similarities” between the two crashes, putting pressure on Boeing and U.S. regulators to come up with an adequate fix.
Boeing shares closed down slightly on Tuesday. They have lost about 12 percent and $29 billion in market value since the crash in Ethiopia.
China’s civil aviation regulator has stopped taking applications for Max 8 airworthiness certification, a regulatory official said on Tuesday.
Deutsche Lufthansa AG plans to buy a triple-digit number of either Boeing 737 Max or Airbus A320neo jetliners to expand its fleet, Chief Executive Carsten Spohr said on Tuesday.
“We have not lost our trust in Boeing,” Spohr told reporters. “They’ve built wonderful aircraft over the decades, and I am sure they will fix the current issue.”
Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Lufthansa.
Ethiopian Airlines’ success over the past decade as it has expanded its Boeing-dominated fleet is emblematic of Ethiopia’s ambitions: to be a regional powerhouse with an Asia-style economic development model.
Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who took office a year ago and announced sweeping economic and political reforms, has said he wants to open the airline up to foreign investment as part of a partial privatization of state-owned enterprises.
All of that could hinge on what the investigation reveals. Most crash investigations end up pinpointing a combination of factors.