US federal regulators reacted to the Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX crash last fall by issuing a reminder to pilots about cockpit procedures — because, an official told Congress on Wednesday, it initially believed pilot error was to blame.
Pilots, however, had not been informed before that crash that Boeing had developed and deployed a new stabilization in the plane, known as MCAS. While the pilots fought it, the system repeatedly pushed the nose of the Lion Air plane downward, sending it into a steep and unrecoverable dive.
“In that particular case, based on the data and information that we received, we recognized that in Lion Air case, pilot action played a significant role,” Ali Bahrami, the Federal Aviation Administration’s top safety official, told a Senate Appropriations subcommittee Wednesday.
“We felt that the most important urgent thing to do until we have the appropriate fixes in place (was) to provide the pilots with the appropriate procedures to focus on going forward,” he said, while a fix was developed.
Bahrami was asked about and did not dispute Wall Street Journal reporting that FAA officials concluded following the Lion Air crash that there was a high likelihood of another Boeing 737 MAX malfunction. Just months later, a 737 MAX operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed. Together, the crashes killed 346 people.
Bahrami also indicated the agency was not more upfront about the MCAS issues in the airworthiness directive because standard procedure in aviation investigations limits what participants, such as the FAA, can say.
“So we wanted to basically resolve the issue without having the disclose information that the investigators did not want us to disclose,” he said.
Bahrami said the decision to not inform pilots of the MCAS system was a delicate balance between providing “sufficient information to be able to control the aircraft but you don’t want to overwhelm them with all kinds of information that may not be relevant.” MCAS was intended to work “in the background and it should be transparent to the flight crews.”
Bahrami’s resume includes both leadership of the FAA’s Seattle office — which oversees Boeing — and the Aerospace Industries Association, the plane manufacturer industry group. He returned from the industry group to the FAA in 2017 as the associate administrator for safety.
The agency’s acting deputy administrator, Carl Burleson, said the agency would consider any recommendations to change its process for certifying aircraft, which requires the agency to delegate a substantial amount of work to the manufacturer. The agency has been criticized for allowing Boeing too much leeway in certifying the MAX.
“I do think the fundamental process of how we went about certifying the MAX was sound,” Burleson testified.
Sen. Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, was critical of the FAA’s certification processes.
“We have relied on the industry more than we should rely on the industry to do the job that we should do to make sure the American public is safe,” he said.
“I would say for the 737 MAX to get back into the air, every Boeing official should be flying that plane for one month to make sure that we have the confidence to get back on that plane,” Manchin added. “I’m not getting on the 737 MAX ’til I see the president of Boeing and all of his and her associates on that plane first and flying it for any substantial time.”
This story has been updated.