WASHINGTON – The nation’s top federal aviation officials will appear before a congressional committee Wednesday, the first Capitol Hill hearing since the March 10 crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane in Ethiopia raised questions about the safety of the aircraft.
Members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee are expected to press key Trump administration officials on whether America’s flying public is at any risk of similar disasters.
And they are likely to asked whether a fix of the software issue believed to be linked to the March 10 crash and an Oct. 29 Boeing 737 Max 8 crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia will solve the problem.
The two crashes killed a combined 346 passengers and prompted a number of countries to ground the aircraft used at their airports. The U.S. was the last major government to take such action.
Here are five things to know about Wednesday’s hearing:
No one from Boeing will be testifying
The hearing will not feature anyone from Boeing, even though the plane crashes involving the 737 Max 8 are prompting the congressional review.
Company officials are expected to testify at a later hearing, but company chairman, president and CEO Dennis Muilenburg has led a public relations campaign to try to assure the public his company is on top of any problems.
“Safety is at the core of who we are at Boeing,” Muilenburg wrote in an open letter last week addressed to airlines, passengers and the aviation community.
The company has begun taking steps
Pilots from five airlines, including the three U.S. carriers that flew the Max jets before they were grounded worldwide, tested upgrades to the flight-control system over the weekend at Boeing’s facility outside Seattle, the aircraft manufacturer confirmed.
Boeing will also host more than 200 airline pilots, technicians and regulators in an informational session Wednesday that’s among the initial steps in its attempt to get the Max planes back in the air.
Investigators have pointed to the stall-prevention system known as MCAS – Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System – as a likely factor in the Oct. 29 crash of Lion Air Flight 610, which killed all 189 aboard when it plunged into the Java Sea off the coast of Indonesia.
Aviation authorities have noted clear similarities between that airplane’s movements and the path taken by Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed March 10 just outside the capital city of Addis Ababa and took the lives of the 157 passengers and crew on board.
The FAA may be asked why planes kept flying
The U.S. was the last major country to allow the 737 Max 8 plane to keep flying after the second crash, despite criticism they should have been grounded earlier.
One of those calling for their grounding was Jim Hall, who headed the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001.
“The responsible thing for the manufacturer Boeing to do is to ground the aircraft until we know exactly what occurred,” he told USA TODAY this month. “That’s the prudent thing to do.”
Related: Former NTSB chief: Hundreds of Boeing jets should be grounded in wake of Ethiopia crash
Related: Ethiopian official: Preliminary report on Boeing 737 MAX 8 crash due out this week
Related: Grounded Southwest Boeing 737 Max 8 makes emergency landing on way to storage facility
But while most countries began grounding their aircraft, Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration said there was no reason to do so.
“Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft,” said acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell at the time.
Elwell will be testifying Wednesday along with Robert Sumwalt, who chairs the NTSB, and Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department’s inspector general.
Ted Cruz is back in the spotlight
The Texas Republican chairs the subcommittee on Aviation and Space, the panel that’s holding Wednesday’s hearing.
Cruz has kept a relatively low profile since his unexpectedly close re-election victory over Democrat Beto O’Rourke in November.
Cruz ran a spirited presidential campaign in 2016, when he came in second behind Donald Trump for the GOP nomination. Cruz was chided for his eagerness to support Trump following a bitter, insult-filled contest between the two candidates.
The two have since made up.
Writing in Time Magazine last year, the senator praised the president as a “flash-bang grenade thrown into Washington by the forgotten men and women of America.”
A top political donor is under scrutiny
Boeing has been one of the largest donors to lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Since 1990, the Chicago-based company (ranked 27th biggest in the U.S. by Fortune in 2017) has collectively contributed more than $32 million to members of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent watchdog group.
The donations have been split fairly evenly by party, including to most members of the subcommittee that will be conducting Wednesday’s oversight hearing.
The company has contributed at least $10,000 to the campaigns of Cruz and Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, the top Democrat on the panel, according to the center.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz