As Boeing unveiled its 737 MAX software update, the FAA head to answer questions to the U.S. Senate about airline safety state.

Dan Elwell, Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, was auditioned by the Senate regarding the “state of airline safety, focusing on Federal oversight of commercial aviation” on March 27, 2019.

Elwell called for an additional 10,000 workers and $1.8 billion new funding to be allocated to the FAA for it to assume all responsibilities of aircraft certification.

Elwell tried to convince senators who auditioned him that the FAA had done its job. He also rejected the idea that the agency was slow to immobilize the MAX after the Ethiopian Airlines tragedy, even though it did so only on March 13, 2019.

FAA too trusting of its subjects?

Elwell sees no problem of Boeing’s participation in 737 MAX certification, pointed at by engineers interviewed by The Seattle Times. Elwell claims that close collaboration between the regulator and the industry, as well as exchange of information that ensues, are at the core of air transport safety. He claims that the European Aviation Safety Agency relies even more on the industry for certification.

U.S. Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel, who was given the task of reviewing the safety processes at the FAA by the Transport Secretary on March 19, 2019, pointed out in a written testimony ahead of Elwell’s hearing that the FAA was to “introduce a new process that represents a significant change in its oversight approach” by July 2019. The modification was following another inspection dating back to 2015.

At a separate hearing on the morning of March 27, 2019, US Transport Secretary Elaine Chao said she was worried about collusion allegations between Boeing and the FAA. However, Chao stressed out that the system that allows Boeing to take over part of the certification of its aircraft was necessary because the FAA would have been unable to carry it out on its own.

Pilot training on Boeing 737

Elwell also stressed that American and Canadian pilots who had tested the Boeing 737 MAX in simulator had indicated "unanimously" that there was no need for additional training for the new model.

Meanwhile, Boeing has unveiled the anticipated software update, which is accompanied by an updated computer-based training (CBT). Once (and if) approved, the CBT is to be accessible to “all 737 MAX pilots” and provide an “enhanced understanding of the 737 MAX Speed Trim System, including the MCAS function, associated existing crew procedures and related software changes”.

Flight Crew Operations Manual Bulletin, Updated Speed Trim Fail Non-Normal Checklist and Revised Quick Reference Handbook will also have to be mandatory reviewed by pilots.

737 MAX safety or luxury features?

As for the software update, or as the company calls “layers of protection”,  the anti-stall Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) will now compare inputs from both angle of attack (AOA) sensors.

If 5.5 degrees or larger disagreement between the sensors is detected (with the flaps retracted), MCAS will not activate. When activated in non-normal conditions, MCAS will only provide one input for each elevated AOA event. The company also points out that from now, MCAS can never command more stabilizer input than can be counteracted by the flight crew pulling back on the column. The pilots will continue to always have the ability to override MCAS and manually control the airplane.

Among software updates, Boeing also states that an indicator on the flight deck display will alert the pilots if AOA sensors provide conflicting results. The feature has already drawn a lot of attention. Recent The New York Times publication draws attention to the fact, the previously Boeing sold an angle of attack indicator and an angle of attack disagree light as an extra feature. Both 737 MAX planes that crashed did not have them.

Talking about the alarm to warn pilots of a stalling system malfunction that Boeing announced it would make standard on all 737 MAX planes in the coming upgrade, Elwell said it was not "safety critical". The topic, however,  was not spared of harsh criticism:

The man who stood for FAA

Senator Ted Cruz, who leads the Subcommittee on Science and Space, quoted by Reuters, commented on Elwell’s hearing saying it was “a little bit of straw man”. The concerns about the FAA delegation of responsibilities to Boeing were “deflected”.

Elwell, a former American Airlines pilot, had been the interim administrator since the end of Michael Huerta’s term, in January 2018. The nomination of a replacement has been delayed since then by a dispute between the Senate and the President, who wanted to appoint his personal pilot, John Dunkin. On March 19, 2019, Donald Trump announced a decision to appoint former Delta pilot Steve Dickson to replace Daniel K. Elwell as the head of the FAA for a period of five years, a nomination which is yet to be approved by the US Senate