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FAA Officials Face More Questions On Why It Approved Boeing's 737 Max Jets


On Capitol Hill today, lawmakers grilled officials with the Federal Aviation Administration about their handling of the Boeing 737 Max. For months, the planes have been grounded for commercial flights ever since a pair of crashes killed nearly 350 people. Senators wanted to know why the FAA didn't ground the Max after the first deadly accident. NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: When the first 737 Max crashed last October in Indonesia, it didn't take long for investigators to zero in on a new flight control system called MCAS. The Lion Air crew wrestled with their plane not long after takeoff as the nose repeatedly pitched down. Pilots were never told about the MCAS system when training on the new plane, and there was no mention in the flight manuals. That's because Boeing didn't feel it was necessary.

It was after that crash the FAA learned how overpowering the new system could be. So at a Senate hearing today, FAA associate safety administrator Ali Bahrami was asked, why wasn't the plane grounded then?


ALI BAHRAMI: So we wanted to basically resolve the issue without having to disclose information that the investigators did not want us to disclose. And from the safety perspective, we felt strongly that what we did was adequate.

LEWIS: It wasn't adequate. Five months later, an Ethiopian Airlines Max crashed in a similar nosedive that killed 157 people. In the last week, The New York Times and Wall Street Journal have reported on FAA internal deliberations about the 737 Max. After the Indonesia crash, regulators learned it wouldn't take much to have another accident. Bahrami said he and other senior leaders studied the concerns but still deemed the plane safe.


BAHRAMI: In my view, the process was followed.

LEWIS: At the hearing today, FAA officials said they felt no pressure to certify the plane then or now, as Boeing works to fix the problems. None of it was comforting to West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.


JOE MANCHIN: I would say for the 737 Max to get back in the air, every Boeing official should be flying that plane for one month to make sure that we have the confidence for a passenger to get back on that plane. I'm not getting on the 737 Max till I see the president of Boeing and all his associates be on that plane first.

LEWIS: Airlines worldwide have struggled to deal with the absence of the 737 Max. Service has been cut, and pilots have been grounded. The plane is Boeing's bestselling and a key to its financial future, and there's no indication when it will fly again.

Russell Lewis, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) 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.