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FAA: Unanimous opinion was no additional flight training needed

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX. Photo: China News Service/Getty Images

The Federal Aviation Administration concluded that no retraining was necessary upon introducing the MCAS system in the Boeing 737 MAX 8 to commercial pilots, according to the FAA's Acting Administrator Daniel K. Elwell, who, on Wednesday, said he did not believe the certification process of the aircraft included training for sensor malfunctioning or reporting of faulty data in flight simulations.

Details: Elwell, who expressed confidence in the MCAS system — short for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that Boeing installed to prevent the aircraft from stalling — admitted there was no "specific instruction on the MCAS," to his knowledge. The Senate Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Aviation and Space held a hearing on federal oversight and the approval process within the aviation industry, largely focusing on the FAA's certification process for the Boeing's 737 MAX 8 — which has been involved in 2 fatal crashes in less than a year, killing 346 people — and the relationship between the industry and its regulators.

The backdrop: Investigations are ongoing following October's Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 earlier this month. The "first priority in aviation must always be the safety of the flying public," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) in his introductory remarks at Wednesday's hearing.

  • In his opening comments, Elwell said the FAA was "fully involved" in the certification process for the Boeing 737 MAX 8, referencing "133 of the 297 flight tests" the FAA worked on. Elwell also reminded the subcommittee that "in the past 10 years, there has only been one commercial airline passenger fatality in the United States in over 90 million flights.
  • Sen. Krysten Sinema (D-Ariz.) asked Elwell why pilots were not required to receive simulator training for the Boeing 737 MAX 8, to which he explained that a Flight Standardization Board recommended that no additional training was required, with pilots from around the world agreeing unanimously that the 737 MAX was similar enough to earlier models.
  • Elwell clarified that MCAS is not an anti-stall system, but a supplement to the speed-trim system, adding "it is still yet to be determined if the malfunctioning of the [angle of attack] AOA caused the crash. We actually don't yet know what caused the crash."
  • When pressed by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.,) Robert Sumwalt, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and Elwell could not explain how they would have regained control of the Lion Air flight when the nose of the plane dipped 21 times before crashing.
  • In a heated exchange with Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) Elwell said: "Sir, the distinction between what goes in a flight deck and what stays out is a discussion, and whether or not a display is safety critical or not, is a distinction FAA is qualified to make."

Quick take: Earlier on Wednesday, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) asked Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao about the relationship between the FAA and Boeing regarding safety certifications, to which Chao said she was "concerned about any allegations of coziness." Also on Wednesday, Boeing released software updates to the MCAS software system.

What's next: The subcommittee plans to hold a second hearing for non-government witnesses, including Boeing. Per Elwell: "The 737 MAX will return to service for U.S. carriers only when the FAA's analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is appropriate to do so."

Go deeper: Everything you need to know about the 737 MAX crashes