FAA Chief Faults Boeing for Lack of Clarity on MCAS

 - May 15, 2019, 4:15 PM
A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8 prepares to touch down at San Francisco International Airport in October 2018. (Photo: Flickr: Creative Commons (BY) by Colin Brown Photography)

Acting head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Daniel Elwell testified during a House Aviation Subcommittee hearing on Wednesday that he considers the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) in the Boeing 737 Max a “safety critical” item that the company should have included in the model’s pilot training manuals.

“As a pilot, as somebody who has devoted my entire life to flying and safety, I, at the beginning, when I first heard of this thought that the MCAS should have been more adequately explained in the ops manual...Absolutely,” he said when pressed on the issue by Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Ariz.).

Elwell noted that an FAA airworthiness directive issued on November 8, a little more than a week after the crash of a Lion Air 737 Max into the Java Sea, included an explanation on MCAS. He also said the agency reminded pilots of when to execute runaway pitch procedures in a continued airworthiness notification to the international community (CANIC). “When we complete our overview, when we complete our safety analysis, I expect that we will have an amplified MCAS description in addition to anything else that we think and we find is needed to make pilots more aware and respond better to an anomaly,” he stressed. Elwell reported that the agency expected Boeing to submit a software update related to the MCAS within about a week.

Elwell and FAA executive director for aircraft certification Earl Lawrence also answered criticism that Boeing failed to inform the agency of a software problem related to the Max’s angle of attack (AOA) disagree alert for 13 months after company engineers first recognized that the function wouldn’t work unless the airplane came with an optional AOA indicator. Although both Elwell and Lawrence downplayed the disagree alert’s significance, referring to it as more of a maintenance reporting feature than a safety imperative, both expressed dissatisfaction with the time gap between Boeing’s recognition of the problem and the FAA’s knowledge of it.

“They followed their procedures because...the AOA disagree light was not a critical safety display,” said Elwell. “It's advisory only for maintenance recording. [However], it languished, and I am not happy with a 13-month gap between finding that anomaly and us finding out about it. And we’re going to look into that. We are looking into that and, and we will make sure that software anomalies are reported more quickly.”