FAA chief: Manuals should have told 737 MAX pilots more about Boeing's MCAS system

Mike Baker, The Seattle Times on

Published in Business News

SEATTLE -- The head of the Federal Aviation Administration said Wednesday he believes documentation on Boeing's 737 MAX should have told pilots more about the safety system that's suspect in two crashes that killed 346 people.

Daniel Elwell, the FAA's acting administrator and a former commercial pilot, said in testimony before a congressional committee that he expects the FAA will amplify the description of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) system so that pilots will be able to better respond to an anomaly.

"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," Elwell said.

MCAS is suspected of playing a role in both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes, with the system pushing the nose of those planes down after getting faulty data from a sensor.

Elwell was also critical of Boeing's handling of a cockpit warning light that would have alerted pilots of a problem with those sensors. While Elwell said the warning light was for the sake of maintenance, not flight safety, he said it took Boeing too long -- 13 months -- to notify the FAA about a software problem that was causing the indicator not to work properly.

"You have our commitment that we're going to look into that and fix that," Elwell told lawmakers.


Elwell defended the overall system under which the 737 MAX was certified. He described how the FAA was involved in test flights and in the safety analysis of the MCAS system.

Under the FAA's delegation system, companies such as Boeing can appoint people to work as the FAA's "authorized representatives" with the ability to issue certifications. A Seattle Times investigation earlier this month detailed how some representatives faced internal pressures and how the FAA's new system means those representatives no longer report to the FAA but to Boeing managers.

Rep. Rick Larsen, the Washington state Democrat who chairs the House Aviation subcommittee, asked whether Elwell is looking to revert to the older system that gave the FAA more direct oversight of its representatives. Elwell said he's waiting to see what various investigations and audits have to say.

"If we have robust oversight, and we have all the protections in place to guard against conflicts of interest or undue pressure, which I believe we currently have, it's a good system," Elwell said. "But it can always be made better."


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