Updated at 8:30 P.M. ET
The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration defended his agency against criticism that it waited too long to ground Boeing 737 Max planes after a pair of deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
Daniel Elwell told a Senate subcommittee that the FAA waited longer than other countries to order the move earlier this month because it wanted to see flight data that might help explain how the Ethiopian Airlines crash happened.
"We may have been, I think someone said, the last country to ground the aircraft but the United States and Canada were the first countries to ground the aircraft with data," Elwell told the aviation subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Elwell was also asked repeatedly about whether pilots were adequately trained in the use of new software installed by Boeing to stabilize the planes. Reports have indicated that the pilot in the Lion Air crash last fall struggled to keep the jet's nose from falling in the minutes before the crash.
"That is not an image that instills comfort or confidence, and it does not suggest that the pilot is aware of how to adjust for the system that is adjusting the nose downward," said Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, who chairs the subcommittee.
Elwell said it would take time to determine why the pilots encountered difficulty. But he noted that the FAA uses a panel of pilots from around the world to test software changes on simulators.
"And they fly it and are monitored by engineers and experts specifically to see if they have or notice differences in the flight characteristics, the handling characteristics of the new airplane," Elwell said.
He said the panel of pilots decided no new training was needed.
Elwell was also questioned by the senators about an FAA program that allows some airlines to certify changes to plane design internally. The program is under review by the Transportation Department.
"Safety experts have long raised concerns that the ... program leaves the fox in charge of the hen house," wrote Democratic Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut in a March 19th letter to the Transportation Department's watchdog, the inspector general's office.
"Under that program, employees of the aircraft manufacturers — who are hired and can be fired by those manufacturers — are responsible not only for quality control during the aircraft manufacturing process but for certifying that aircraft are safe," Blumenthal added.
In his opening remarks, Elwell defended the FAA's process for reviewing and certifying changes to plane designs, saying, "The FAA is directly involved in the testing and certification of new and novel features and technologies."
These procedures are "extensive, well established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs for decades," Elwell said.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
On Capitol Hill today, the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration defended his agency's role in certifying the Boeing 737 Max planes as safe to fly. A Senate panel pressed the FAA leader and other government officials on what went wrong with two 737 Max flights - the one that crashed earlier this month in Ethiopia and another that went down in the Java Sea last October. There were no survivors in either disaster. Today, senators wanted to know whether the FAA has become too cozy with Boeing and whether there should have been more pilot training.
Joining us now is NPR's Jim Zarroli. He's been watching all of this. And, Jim, obviously, the crash investigations are still going on, but this is the first time senators could really put these questions to the FAA - right? - and it was Daniel Elwell who's acting head.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: Yeah. And, yeah, it was mostly a polite hearing. He spent much of his time trying to explain the FAA's system for inspecting and certifying changes to plane design. This has been very controversial because both of the planes that crashed seemed to have trouble with this new computer system that Boeing installed that's supposed to stabilize the plane. The FAA has a program in which it sometimes delegates to aircraft companies the responsibility to kind of inspect themselves and what they do. The Transportation Department is now conducting an audit into how these changes were made in the case of the Boeing 737 Max. So Elwell - he talked about that. He also tried to assure everybody about the overall safety of the aviation system.
CORNISH: U.S. regulators have been criticized for not grounding the 737 Max - right? - after the second crash as other countries did. Did Elwell address that?
ZARROLI: Oh, yeah, he did. He talked about how, you know, after the first crash, the agency was in the middle of investigating it. It had been talking to Boeing about a potential software fix. Then after the second crash, he said, yes, the U.S. did take longer than other countries to take care of this issue because it wanted to see the flight data and understand exactly what happened. He said other countries didn't do that. And here's what he had to say.
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DANIEL ELWELL: The important thing to know about using data - we may have been, I think someone said, the last country to ground the aircraft. But the United States and Canada were the first countries to ground the aircraft with data.
ZARROLI: He said other countries actually came to the United States after it took this step and asked to see the data that the U.S. had collected. So he was defending the sort of slower pace that that his agency worked at.
CORNISH: The other question in all this has been about the pilots - right? - whether they had enough training on the new software installed. Did he talk about that?
ZARROLI: Yeah. This is an issue that came up a lot because in both cases, the pilots seemed unable to control the planes, and they seemed to have been caught by surprise when this stabilization system failed. The chairman of the committee is - the subcommittee is Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. And he read from this kind of hair-raising Reuters story about the last few minutes of the Lion Air flight when the pilots were, you know, frantically trying to consult a manual to figure out what was happening. Here was what Cruz said.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
TED CRUZ: That is not an image that instills comfort or confidence, and it does not suggest that the pilot is aware of how to correct for the system that is adjusting the nose downward.
ZARROLI: And the FAA heads replied by saying that the investigators were looking into what happened with these pilots. He said the agency actually has a flight stabilization board in which a group of international pilots train on simulators of how to deal with software changes. And in this case, they didn't feel the system was really any different than what they were used to, so the FAA decided no more training was needed. But that's something the FAA is looking into.
CORNISH: That's NPR's Jim Zarroli. Thank you.
ZARROLI: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.