Senators grill Elwell on safety, industry ties

WASHINGTON (AP) — Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., challenged FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell on whether the FAA should ban “selling safety features a la carte to the airlines.” Safety features like the MCAS (or Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) shouldn’t be optional at an extra charge but should be provided gratis like seat belts on vehicles, he said.

“It doesn’t mask any problem,” Elwell insisted in questioning on the MCAS. “What it does, is it gives the proper feel to a pilot because he doesn’t have those cables.”

And Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., raised the prickly issue of whether the FAA, as an independent regulator, has a too-cozy a relationship with the airlines and aircraft makers. He noted that Boeing, a major government contractor with deep longstanding connections in Washington, is locked in intense competition with European maker Airbus.

Political appointees at the FAA pushed the career staff to quickly get done what was needed to get the Max flying, Udall said.

Robert Sumwalt, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the issue of the FAA’s posture toward the industry is a part of his investigation.

Elwell said he kept the White House and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao “fully apprised” of developments before the decision to ground the planes. Chao “never told me to ground it,” he told Senator Blumenthal.