WASHINGTON – The US Department of Transportation announced on Wednesday an audit of the process the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) used in certifying the Boeing 737 Max, which has been involved in two deadly crashes in the last six months.
“Clearly, confidence in the FAA as the gold standard for aviation safety has been shaken,” the department’s inspector general, Calvin Scovel, said during a hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation subcommittee.
Auditors will seek to document and evaluate the FAA’s overall approach to certifying the Boeing 737 Max series with an eye toward identifying areas where improvement is needed, he told senators.
The FAA has since its founding delegated portions of the certification process to aircraft manufacturers.
Besides looking at the certification, Scovel said the investigation would examine why FAA hesitated to ground Max 737 planes in the US while regulatory agencies in China, Europe and elsewhere moved quickly to bar the aircraft.
“That apparent disparity in appreciation of the safety regulator’s role should be another question,” he said.
The FAA grounded the aircraft on March 13, three days after 157 people died in the crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines.
The tragedy in Africa followed an October 2018 accident in Indonesia involving a 737 Max 8, which resulted in 189 deaths, and similarities between the two crashes led to questioning of a new apparatus Boeing installed in the Max series, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
Experience has shown that under some circumstances, the MCAS can cause the aircraft to incline sharply downward.
Speaking at the same Senate hearing, acting FAA administrator Daniel Elwell said that existing certification procedures “are extensive, well-established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs for decades.”
Though he insisted the agency was “fully involved” in the process of certifying the 737 Max, Elwell acknowledged that the FAA ultimately ceded oversight of the MCAS to Boeing.
“I want to assure you and everyone else that the FAA will go wherever the facts lead us in our pursuit of safety. The 737 Max will return to service for US carriers only when the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is appropriate to do so,” Elwell said.