March 26, 2019 / 4:10 PM / 3 months ago

Exclusive: FAA to overhaul air safety oversight by July - U.S. inspector general

WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - The Federal Aviation Administration will significantly change its oversight approach to air safety by July 2019, U.S. Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel said in written testimony reviewed by Reuters ahead of a U.S. Senate panel hearing.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial photo shows several Boeing 737 MAX airplanes grounded at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, U.S. March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

At the same hearing, the FAA’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, will tell a Senate Commerce Committee panel the agency’s oversight approach must “evolve” after two fatal crashes involving Boeing Co 737 MAX passenger jets since October.

The accidents, which killed nearly 350 people, triggered the worldwide grounding of Boeing’s flagship aircraft and ignited a debate over the proper balance between man and machine in piloting the latest version of the 50-year-old 737.

Scovel’s testimony for the hearing, set for Wednesday, says that in response to a 2015 inspector general report, the FAA agreed to improve its oversight of organizations performing certifications on its behalf.

By July the “FAA plans to introduce a new process that represents a significant change in its oversight approach,” Scovel says in his prepared remarks.

“While revamping FAA’s oversight process will be an important step, continued management attention will be key to ensure the agency identifies and monitors the highest-risk areas of aircraft certification,” he wrote, adding that some issues including how pilots get training to respond when automated flight systems require the FAA’s “urgent attention.”

Elwell will also say the 737 MAX will return to service “only when the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is appropriate.”

Elwell’s testimony discloses that Boeing first submitted its proposed anti-stall software upgrade to the FAA for certification on Jan. 21 of this year and that the FAA has tested “this enhancement to the 737 MAX flight control system in both the simulator and the aircraft.”

Boeing is expected as early as Wednesday to unveil more details of the software upgrade. The company said Tuesday it would carefully monitor the hearing.

Separately, National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Robert Sumwalt will tell the panel in written testimony that the board is “examining the U.S. design certification process to ensure any deficiencies are captured and addressed, potentially up to and including NTSB safety recommendations.”

Elwell will tell the panel that the FAA “will go

wherever the facts lead us, in the interest of safety.” He defended the FAA’s aircraft certification system, but acknowledged it faces challenges.

The 737 MAX is Boeing’s best-selling plane, with orders worth more than $500 billion at list prices.

The software fix will prevent repeated operation of the anti-stall system and will deactivate it if it receives widely conflicting sensor information, Reuters reported. Boeing will also make standard a previously optional warning light.

“The testing, which was conducted by FAA flight test engineers and flight test pilots, included aerodynamic stall

situations and recovery procedures,” Elwell’s testimony says.

In addition to Scovel’s office, federal prosecutors are also investigating the 737 MAX certification.

“As the aerospace system and its components become increasingly more complex, we know that our oversight approach needs to evolve to ensure that the FAA remains the global leader in achieving aviation safety,” Elwell’s testimony will say.

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said on Monday she was naming a blue-ribbon panel to review the FAA’s aircraft certification program.

Elwell’s testimony defends the certification process that allows Boeing or other companies to act as a representative for FAA.

But Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, said Friday the program “effectively left the fox guarding the hen house.” Elwell’s testimony says the program “is not self-certification; the FAA retains strict oversight authority.”

Reporting by David Shepardson and Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Tom Brown

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