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Some Experts Remain Skeptical As Boeing And FAA Work To Assure 737 Max Jet Is Safe


Officials with the Federal Aviation Administration spent hours today speaking with pilots and executives at Southwest, United and American Airlines. They are the three U.S. airlines that fly the Boeing 737 Max. Questions about the FAA's role in certifying the plane have grown in the weeks since the second fatal crash of a 737 Max. The jet is still grounded. And now, the FAA has to reassure airlines and regulators in other countries that whenever it says the 737 Max is safe to fly again, that is, in fact, accurate. NPR's Russell Lewis reports.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: This week on Capitol Hill, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao continued her defense of the FAA amid questions about why it approved the Boeing 737 Max.


ELAINE CHAO: The department's goal is to ensure public trust in aviation safety and preserve the preeminence of the United States as the gold standard in aviation safety.

LEWIS: The U.S. is enjoying its safest period of air travel ever - one single fatality on a major U.S. commercial airline in the past decade. But following the crashes of 737 Max's in Indonesia and Ethiopia, questions are swirling whether the FAA has taken a hit as the world's premier aviation regulator.

SHEM MALMQUIST: So the answer is yes, the FAA has lost some of that credibility.

LEWIS: Shem Malmquist has been involved in aviation and aviation safety since the 1970s. He teaches advanced aircraft operations at Florida Institute of Technology and also currently flies the Boeing 777. He says people in the industry had assumed the FAA was doing everything it could to ensure safety. So was John Strickland, a longtime aviation consultant based in England.

JOHN STRICKLAND: Of course, at the end of the day, what matters is safety. There can only be one objective - that it delivers a safe aircraft which airlines can be confident in and that we, the traveling public, can be confident in.

LEWIS: That's one reason why aviation regulators in Canada, Europe and elsewhere say they plan to double-check the 737 Max software fixes once they're approved by the FAA. Strickland says that's surprising, and before these accidents, almost unheard of.

For decades, the FAA relied on manufacturers like Boeing to help in the review and certification of new jets. These planes are increasingly complex, with millions of lines of computer code understood best by the people who designed them. When the 737 Max was approved, it was one of the first jets signed off under new rules that gave Boeing even more authority in the approval process.

The FAA has told Congress for the agency to take over all certifications, it would need an additional 10,000 employees at $1.8 billion. Jim Higgins chairs the aviation department at the University of North Dakota. He says it's not as easy as just throwing more money at the problem.

JIM HIGGINS: Because it takes many years to train people to become aircraft design engineers for these types of aircraft and then many more to - for them to get the experience to be kind of in an oversight role.

LEWIS: The extra attention being shined on Boeing and the FAA is important, says Shem Malmquist, the Florida Tech professor and pilot. He says now that regulators in other countries are planning to scrutinize the 737 Max fixes, there's value in having men and women from varying backgrounds studying the updates.

MALMQUIST: I think there's something to be said by having different cultures from around the world looking at these things a lot closer. They may capture something just based on their cultural perspective that we didn't consider.

LEWIS: The FAA, for its part, says it welcomes the added scrutiny. Here's acting administrator Daniel Elwell.


DANIEL ELWELL: As recent events have reminded us, aviation safety has no borders or boundaries.

LEWIS: But don't expect a potential fix anytime soon. The updates to the Boeing 737 Max aren't expected for weeks and possibly months. Russell Lewis, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.