By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The top U.S. Transportation Secretary questioned on Wednesday why Boeing Co did not require safety features on its top-selling 737 MAX that might have prevented two recent crashes, ahead of a much-anticipated Senate hearing about the airplane.
“It is very questionable if these were safety-oriented additions, why they were not part of the required template of measures that should go into an airplane,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said, who added she was not ready to require that all safety options be retrofitted on existing airplanes.
Shortly after Chao spoke, Boeing confirmed it will make standard a safety feature on its now grounded 737 MAX that might have warned earlier of problems that possibly played a role in the crashes of Ethiopian and Indonesian planes that killed almost 350 people. Reuters and other outlets reported on the plans last week.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat, said she was considering introducing a bill that would require “key safety equipment” be included in basic plane sale costs.
“I feel very strongly that key safety equipment should be included in the basic sale price of a plane,” she said.
Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat and pilot, questioned Chao why it took the Federal Aviation Administration so long to ground the 737 MAX while regulators around the world moved faster to halt planes.
He also questioned why safety features were not mandated by Boeing or the FAA. “It looks like we are following,” Manchin said, adding it was “just wrong” not to require the alert.
At a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on the Transportation Department’s budget, Chao said the issue will be reviewed by an outside committee and the department’s inspector general.
Chao said “it’s troubling that if indeed it was a safety feature that it was not included.”
She defended the FAA’s decision-making as a “fact-based” review and decided to ground the planes after it received new satellite data and evidence at the scene. Chao said 1,461 Boeing employees are involved in certification. She defended the FAA’s decision to allow Boeing to perform much of the certification work for the government.
The FAA has said it will review the software upgrade and plans to mandate it by April but has emphasized that it will not agree to unground the planes until it has more details about what led to the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash.
Senator Ted Cruz, who will chair the hearing later on Wednesday, said on CNBC, “Another major area of inquiry is the process of certification of the 737 MAX to begin with.”
“Why didn’t this process catch this problem if this was the cause of the accident?”
U.S. Transportation Department Inspector General Calvin Scovel will testify that the FAA will significantly change its oversight approach to air safety by July 2019.
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.”
Scovel’s testimony for the hearing first reported by Reuters says that in response to a 2015 inspector general report, the FAA agreed to improve oversight of organizations performing certifications on its behalf.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Nick Zieminski)