Boeing Executives Testify Before House and Senate Transportation Committees in Contentious Hearings on 737 Max 8

  

By Lewis-Burke Associates, LLC

Over two days and nine hours of hearings, Boeing leadership testified before both the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee (CST) and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (T&I) regarding the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes, as well as the oversight failures by Boeing and the FAA during the design and certification of the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft.  House and Senate committee members were particularly concerned about not only the failures of Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an automated system to help guide the aircraft, and angle of attack (AOA) sensors but communications documenting Boeing misled the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about the known issues with the technology. 

The Senate hearing had a clear emphasis on the role and importance of human factors.  Chairman Roger Wicker (R-MS), Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and others mentioned the importance of human factors in preventing aviation accidents multiple times.  Senator Cantwell noted that issues with human-machine interactions are not exclusive to aviation, highlighting that other innovations such as autonomous vehicles make it critical that human-machine interfaces are properly designed.  Senator Cantwell recently introduced the “Aviation Automation and Human Factors Safety Act of 2019,” alongside Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).  The bill would implement recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report on the 737-Max8 crashes, a 2016 FAA Office of Inspector General (OIG) report and establish a new FAA Center of Excellence on flight automation and human factors.

The House T&I hearing, which lasted more than five hours, focused on allegations of misconduct at Boeing.  This included the decision to leave the MCAS system out of the training manual and the Organization Designation Authorization certification process.  Representatives from both parties admonished Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg and Chief Engineer John Hamilton for the lack of accountability at Boeing in its response to the accidents and asked what steps the company was taking to prevent future incidents with the 737 Max 8 aircraft.  However, the House Committee did not focus its discussion on the recommendations of the NTSB report.

While the House only heard testimony from Boeing executives, the Senate questioned a second panel of experts, including Robert Sumwalt of the NTSB and Christopher Hart of the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR).  These witnesses spoke to the recommendations of their respective organizations and the necessary steps that both Boeing and the FAA must take going forward.  Among other issues, Sumwalt emphasized the need for manufacturers to validate pilot response assumptions using scientific methods and human factors principles to improve cockpit design procedures and training.  Members of both committees expressed frustrations about the assumption that pilots could respond in four seconds to the AOA sensor triggering the MCAS.  Hart emphasized in his testimony that compliance does not ensure safety and that Boeing and the FAA should take actions to prevent incidents beyond what is required by federal regulations.  Both Hart and Sumwalt discussed the importance of human factors in the future evaluation of new aircraft systems and the training and retraining of pilots.

Both committees are poised for additional activities, including hearings and potential legislation, in the aftermath of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes. HFES submitted a letter to the leadership on the House and Senate committees and has met with committee staff to discuss the importance of human factors and recommendations for how Congress can prevent accidents in the future. 

Sources and additional information:

  • The NTSB report can be found here.
  • The OIG Report from 2016 can be found here.
  • More information on Senator Cantwell’s “Aviation Automation and Human Factors Safety Act of 2019” can be found here. A detailed summary of the bill can be found here.
  • The letter sent by HFES to the House and Senate staff can be found here.