Elwell acknowledged there was ambiguity in certain agency training rules that could have been a problem for a different aircraft. But he told members of a House Appropriations subcommittee that making any connection between that problem and the 737 Max was “simply not accurate.”
“Absolutely no pilots working on the 737 Max certification were unqualified,” Elwell said. “They were all fully qualified for their activities.”
In a letter to President Trump, Special Counsel Henry J. Kerner wrote that the “FAA’s official responses to Congress appear to have been misleading in their portrayal of FAA employee training and competency.”
Information provided by the FAA “obfuscates” concerns about the preparation of safety inspectors and “diverts attention away from the likely truth of the matter: that they were neither qualified under agency policy to certify pilots flying the 737 Max nor to assess pilot training on procedures and maneuvers,” the letter said.
Elwell offered to meet with lawmakers after Wednesday’s hearing to go over in greater detail why he rejected the special counsel’s conclusions.
Nonetheless, the findings have added to questions about the FAA’s oversight of the 737 Max, which the agency had certified as safe before two of the planes crashed within five months of each other, first in Indonesia and then in Ethiopia, killing 346 people.
The 737 Max has been grounded since several days after the March 10 crash in Ethiopia. The FAA and international aviation safety regulators are awaiting fixes by Boeing and will conduct additional tests and reviews before deciding when the planes should be allowed to fly again.
Elwell acknowledged the family and friends of some of the crash victims who attended Wednesday’s hearing.
“We at the FAA acknowledge your pain and your loss,” Elwell said.
He also reiterated that no timetable has been set for ungrounding the 737 Max.
“At this time, we continue to evaluate Boeing’s software modification, and we are still developing necessary training requirements,” Elwell said in his opening remarks. “This work is not following any prescribed timeline. As we’ve said repeatedly, the 737 Max will not return to service for U.S. carriers and in U.S. airspace until the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is safe to do so.”
The 737 Max crashes drew scrutiny to an FAA program that handed much of the responsibility for determining whether Boeing was complying with safety standards over to the company itself, and shook international confidence in the FAA.
Agency leaders have defended the process and their approach to safety, but a number of internal and external reviews are underway and the FAA has sought to work with international regulators ahead of allowing the jets to fly again.
The Justice Department’s criminal division also is looking into the 737 Max, along with a congressional committee, and the Transportation Department’s Office of Inspector General.
Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.), chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on transportation, housing and urban development, and related agencies, said the crashes had called into question a safety certification process once considered the global “gold standard.”
“There are also many legitimate questions surrounding the certification process and the extent to which the certification process has been delegated,” Price said.
Elwell continued to defend the system, saying that the agency has been adequately funded and staffed and that its approach to certification had consistently produced safe airplanes.
“Delegation is not self-certification,” Elwell said. “The FAA retains strict oversight authority.”
Investigators say in both 737 Max crashes, bad information from an external sensor caused a malfunction in an automated feature on the planes designed to prevent stalls. The feature, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), repeatedly forced the noses of the planes down before they crashed.
Elwell said Wednesday that a redesigned version of the system would rely on two sensors and would turn on only once, rather than repeatedly.
Elwell also emphasized the close collaboration between the FAA and international aviation regulators reviewing the 737 Max. He disputed claims of a rift between the agencies, saying the FAA had “never been closer with our colleagues internationally.”
“We have to get it right and we have to get it right globally,” he said.
On Monday, the FAA’s leadership met with international aviation regulators and a senior Boeing executive in Montreal to provide an update on the agency’s work to approve Boeing’s fixes to the 737 Max. The meeting followed a similar one in Fort Worth in the spring.