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Lawmakers Scrutinize Timeline for Boeing 737 MAX Software Fix

26/03/2019 12:29pm

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By Andy Pasztor and Andrew Tangel 

WASHINGTON--Congressional investigators examining the Federal Aviation Administration's safety certification of Boeing Co.'s 737 MAX aircraft also are questioning why it has taken months to complete a safety fix initially described to pilots and airlines in November.

With a Senate Commerce subcommittee slated to kick off Capitol Hill hearings Wednesday about Boeing's grounded jet model, lawmakers plan to examine the timeline that regulators and the plane maker have relied on to develop and test software changes for a suspect stall-prevention system.

"There's a lot of questions about how long the fix would take," said aviation and space subcommittee member Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R., W.Va.), adding that lawmakers will ask about training and whether Boeing cut corners because of competitive pressure.

"I expect the hearing will be very thorough," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), the panel's chairman.

Among the issues lawmakers are expected to raise are whether federal employee furloughs during the partial government shutdown in December and January delayed completion of the fix, and whether differences of opinion between the FAA and Boeing about the extent of the software changes stretched out the schedule.

The automated feature, called MCAS, strongly pushes down an aircraft's nose under certain conditions and has been implicated in the fatal dive of a Lion Air jetliner in Indonesia last October. The system also is suspected of playing a part in the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane less than five months later.

On Monday, Boeing said its team "has worked tirelessly to understand the preliminary information from the accidents to create and test these software changes."

An FAA spokesman said the 35-day partial government shutdown which began Dec. 22 didn't delay completion of the fix, but he declined to elaborate on other factors affecting the schedule.

Boeing is in the process of rolling out wholesale software enhancements intended to make MCAS less forceful, less prone to misfire and more controllable by pilots. Final approval and implementation of the changes, along with expanded training requirements, are expected in coming weeks.

But before that, acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell is likely to be grilled about why the fix wasn't distributed before the Ethiopian crash on March 10.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.), who is a member of the full Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said: "I have no clear idea as to why it has taken this long."

Mr. Blumenthal said "they clearly had information before the second crash, from pilots as well as data probably from the crash itself," adding that Mr. Elwell had told him in a briefing that the government shutdown didn't delay the software fix.

During the partial government shutdown, most FAA employees except for air-traffic controllers were told to stay off the job after Dec. 22.

On Monday, an FAA spokesman released a statement saying that about two weeks later--on Jan. 7--the agency "recalled the necessary personnel to support the development and approval" of the software fix.

In conjunction with Boeing, Trump administration officials originally told airlines and pilot unions that the software revisions were likely to be rolled out in early January. By February, the anticipated deadline had shifted to late March or April, according to people familiar with the process.

On Monday, a spokesman for subcommittee member Sen. Tom Udall (D., N.M.) said the lawmaker is concerned about "the delay in rolling out critical safety measures" and intends to raise questions about the topic at the hearing.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com and Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 26, 2019 08:14 ET (12:14 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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