The acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration defended the agency’s certification procedures involving the now-grounded Boeing 737 Max airplane, telling the House Transportation Committee on Wednesday that the process by which company-paid employees inspected their own aircraft was “a good system.”
The F.A.A. executive, Daniel Elwell, said his agency was reviewing a decades-old practice that allowed F.A.A.-certified employees at 79 aircraft manufacturers to assist in the certification of airplanes. But he said he supported the idea of delegating “certain tasks and certain decisions” in the certification process to private employees, despite criticism that the practice has led to lax oversight.
Mr. Elwell, a former pilot and industry lobbyist, faced two hours of questions from skeptical members of the committee, the first of several hearings the committee plans to hold about the regulator’s role in the wake of two fatal crashes involving the troubled airliner.
“How can we have a single point of failure on a modern aircraft?” asked Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democrat of Oregon and the committee’s chairman, who questioned whether the inspection system may have led to the problems with the airliner. “How was that certified? We shouldn’t have to be here today.”
Representative Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington who heads the Transportation Committee’s Subcommittee on Aviation, pressed Mr. Elwell on the agency’s designee authorization process, and the F.A.A.’s role in the development of pilot training procedures for the 737 Max. Pilots were not told about an anti-stall system known as the MCAS that was new to the plane and that played a role in both crashes.
“The committee’s investigation is just getting started, and it will take some time to get answers, but one thing is clear right now: The F.A.A. has a credibility problem,” Mr. Larsen said.
“I thought the MCAS should have been more adequately explained” to pilots around the world, Mr. Elwell said. He faced a number of questions about whether pilots were given proper training on changes to the plane’s navigation and stabilization systems.
The agency, Mr. Elwell said, delegates to the employees of manufacturers only those aspects of aircraft inspection that do not pertain directly to an aircraft’s core safety functions. But Mr. Elwell did acknowledge that the problems with the MCAS were, indeed, considered a critical safety issue — raising new questions about whether Boeing employees should have been allowed to inspect it.
Mr. Elwell also said he was “not happy” with the 13-month lag between reports of a “software anomaly” involving a warning light that notifies pilots of a disagreement in sensors that measure which direction the plane is pointed, and Boeing’s actions to address the problem. Boeing discovered in 2017 that the warning light worked only on planes with an optional indicator that displayed the sensor readings. That indicator was sold as an add-on, and only 20 percent of 737 Max customers purchased it. Neither the Lion Air not the Ethiopian Airlines plane had it.
Still, Mr. Elwell said he did not believe that problem contributed to either crash.