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FAA Acting Administrator Pressed On Boeing 737 Max Jets During Capitol Hill Hearing


On Capitol Hill today, lawmakers sharply questioned representatives of the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency has come under criticism after two crashes of Boeing's new 737 Max. Those accidents killed nearly 350 people. The fleet is still grounded as Boeing works to get the plane flying again, as NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: When the meeting of the House aviation subcommittee began, the room was filled with representatives of the FAA, the National Transportation Safety Board and family members of some of those who died. The panel's chairman, Rick Larsen, set the tone early.


RICK LARSEN: The FAA has a credibility problem. The FAA needs to fix its credibility problem.

LEWIS: Daniel Elwell as the FAA's acting administrator. Lawmakers questioned him and other safety experts about the 737 Max fleet. Elwell told Congress his agency welcomes the scrutiny, and he made this pledge.


DANIEL ELWELL: As our work continues, I want to offer this assurance. 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's safe to do so.

LEWIS: The FAA is under scrutiny for how closely it relied on Boeing to certify the 737 Max. A new feature on the plane called MCAS played a role in the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. In both instances, the flight control system repeatedly pushed the nose of the jet down not long after takeoff. Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio says pilots weren't even aware of the feature.


PETER DEFAZIO: Why, until the plane went down, the first plane, Lion Air, it wasn't even in the manual that this automated system existed - wasn't in the manual. Now, that's odd.

LEWIS: Elwell defended the FAA's original certification and said the five-year process wasn't rushed. But today, he agreed pilots should have been told about the MCAS system instead of learning about it after the first crash.


ELWELL: I, at the beginning, when I first heard of this, thought that the MCAS should have been more adequately explained in the ops manual and the flight manual. Absolutely.

LEWIS: Several other congressional committees are examining the relationship between Boeing and the FAA. The Justice Department is also investigating Boeing. At the same time of this meeting, a Senate committee was holding a confirmation hearing for President Trump's pick to head the FAA permanently. Stephen Dickson is a former Delta Airlines pilot and executive. He told senators safety would always be his No. 1 priority.


STEPHEN DICKSON: If I'm confirmed, I promise you I'm going to be the captain of the ship. I'll be a steady hand on the tiller, which I think is what the American public needs. But that doesn't mean that I'm not going to be asking the tough questions and making the changes that need to be made.

LEWIS: The FAA says it expects Boeing to submit a software update within the next week to fix the flight control issues. A Boeing spokesman today wouldn't confirm that timeline. Russell Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.