Rep. Larsen’s subcommittee plans hearing on Boeing 737 MAX

The House Subcommittee on Aviation will examine the status of the plane since its March grounding.

Rick Larsen

Rick Larsen

By Lori Aratani / The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — The House Subcommittee on Aviation will hold a hearing May 15 to examine the status of the Boeing 737 MAX, which has been grounded since March after two fatal crashes that killed 346 people.

Reps. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, chairman of the subcommittee, and Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon, chairman of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said a witness list and additional details about the hearing would be forthcoming.

At a Senate subcommittee hearing in March chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, members repeatedly pressed acting Federal Aviation Administrator Daniel K. Elwell about the process the agency followed for certifying the Renton-made jet. Elwell defended the system, which relies on Boeing’s participation, saying the arrangement has worked for decades.

Investigators examining both crashes have zeroed in on an automated feature designed to push the plane’s nose down if the aircraft is at risk of stalling. Boeing added the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) to 737 MAX planes to compensate for design changes from previous versions of the 737. But many 737 MAX pilots said they were unaware of the system until the first crash.

Preliminary reports on the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air flight and the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet indicated that pilots in both struggled to control the MCAS system, which appeared to have been triggered by false readings from a small vane on the outside of the plane called an angle-of-attack sensor.

Boeing executives have maintained that the 737 MAX is safe and that software updates and new training programs will ensure it is even safer. At a meeting with shareholders this week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg reiterated that the company “owns” some responsibility for improving the safety of the 737 MAX but stopped short of saying there was any flaw in the plane’s design.

DeFazio’s committee is one of several entities investigating the FAA and Boeing. The Department of Justice’s criminal division has launched its own investigation. In addition, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao has directed the agency’s inspector general to audit the certification process. Chao has also created a special review committee to examine certification procedures for Boeing jets and those made by other manufacturers.

Larsen and DeFazio have also said they want the FAA to bring in third-party experts to examine “any recommended technical modifications and any proposed new training requirements for pilots,” which would cover the changes connected with the MCAS system.

A separate FAA committee, which includes members from NASA and civil aviation authorities from around the world, is meeting in Seattle this week. Their work is independent of other Department of Transportation inquiries.

Three U.S. carriers have 737 MAX jets in their fleets — American, Southwest and United. Both Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have warned investors of extended losses due to the crisis.

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