Deadly Boeing 737 MAX crashes remain US Senate focus after four years

“What the heck is going on in air travel?” a frustrated and confused US Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, asked the acting administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing Wednesday morning.

Cruz was referring to several recent close calls and minor accidents involving commercial US aircraft, some involving jets on runways and one earlier in the week in which a screaming passenger threatened to open a jet exit door mid-flight before attacking a flight attendant with a broken metal spoon.

FAA Acting administrator Bill Nolen assured Cruz and other committee members that the screaming passenger would not have been able to open the door due to the air pressure inside the plane. But Nolan’s response offered little comfort for a committee full of questions about air travel safety four years after 346 people died in two separate Boeing 737 MAX airliner crashes on October 29, 2018, and March 10, 2019.

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Senators primarily used the hearing to ask whether the FAA is doing enough to prevent similar deadly crashes, especially as airline technology advances, putting human pilots in the position of interacting with sophisticated software to safely fly commercial planes.

 Aside from the recent near-misses Cruz referred to, the hearing also included strong condemnations  by GOP members of President Biden’s nomination of Phil Washington to the FAA administrator position.  Several GOP senators said he is unqualified because he has no pilot or airline experience. Cruz noted he was unable to answer basic safety questions about the 737 MAX crashes during a recent hearing.

With the four-year anniversary of the second 737 MAX crash coming on Friday, family members of deceased passengers attended the hearing. They heard concerns from senators about whether the 2020 Airline Certification, Safety and Accountability Act was doing its job to address safety concerns about the Boeing aircraft and future aircraft that will include unusual technologies, including electric-powered motors.

Boeing’s 737 MAX planes in the crashes used flight control software known as MCAS, considered a key factor in the crashes. In simple terms, pilots were not able to overcome the MCAS directive to nosedive, a primary factor contributing to the crashes. The FAA had initially certified the MAX, then grounded it after the crashes and  then reauthorized it for flights after additional pilot training and several alterations. Congress subsequently  passed a new certification process for all aircraft in the 2020 act.

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The act called for the FAA to spend $75 million over three years to hire software experts to understand more complex flight control and other processes like MCAS.  Nolen testified that 18 expert administrators have been hired of 22 positions deemed necessary for the work. Overall, the FAA has about 7,400 engineers and other staff devoted to certifications and inspections and related operations. 

In the hearing, Sen. J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, questioned if current 737 MAX planes are safe, considering two  recent safety incidents reported for new 737 MAX planes on Jan. 20 and Feb. 24. American flight 2692 in the first incident made an urgent radio call noting “a control failure with our stabilizer trim” and in the second incident, Southwest 9017 declared an emergency because the airline trim system was not working and the crew had to perform trim maneuvers manually.

“Is the 737 MAX actually safe?” Vance asked Nolen. “Is the 737 MAX doing what it needs to do in light of some pretty recent safety complaints?”

“Yes, sir, I can say categorically that the 737 MAX product is safe,” Nolen responded. Asked to explain, Nolen said he didn’t know the details of the incidents that Vance reported. “Different things might have happened,” Nolen said.

Other senators wanted to know if the 2020 act had done enough to allow whistleblowers to come forward with safety and other concerns. Nolen said he had reviewed more than 50 whistleblower complaints in the past year and their concerns had been addressed, but he offered no details.

Committee Chair Maria Cantwell, D-Washington, rounded out the hearing with concerns about transparency of the FAA’s activities in oversight of aircraft manufacturers and their suppliers. After the MCAS system problems emerged in 2019,  much of the purpose of the 2020 act was“making sure that people reported [problems] to the FAA and the FAA felt responsible,” she said.

“For us, it’s making sure in the certification process… that another MCAS isn’t projected as a part of the system and people don’t understand it,“ she said.

The committee is projecting four future hearings on reauthorization of the FAA. Questions about aircraft certification are expected as well as potentially expanding the mandatory age 65 retirement of pilots to help fill the need for more commercial pilots.

RELATED: Boeing 737 MAX concerns drag on four years after dual disasters