House Panel Slams Culture That Let Fatal Flaws in New Boeing Model Go Unchecked

Rescuers work at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines flight crash outside of Addis Ababa on March 11, 2019. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

(CN) — Demanding reform in a searing report Wednesday, U.S. lawmakers who studied two jet crashes that killed 346 people placed blame Wednesday on Boeing and the federal regulators that backed its 737 Max as airworthy.

The Boeing 737 Max model entered into commercial service in 2017. By October the next year, a flight employing the model took off from Jakarta, Indonesia, and crashed into the Java Sea, killing everyone on board. A second 737 model crashed in Ethiopia five months later in March 2019. Again, there were no survivors. Boeing had sold thousands of models of the aircrafts by this point; all were grounded shortly after the second crash.

As the scandal caused the world to take stock of its longtime faith in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s stamp of approval, and in Boeing generally, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee began an investigation. 

Its report, coming in Wednesday at 238 pages, says the crashes were caused by “the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”

“Despite the sweeping and substantive problems that have been identified by this Committee’s investigation as well as various other investigations, both Boeing and the FAA have suggested that the certification of the 737 Max was compliant with FAA regulations,” the report states, casting doubt in the new jetliner-approval process. “The fact that a compliant airplane suffered from two deadly crashes in less than five months is clear evidence that the current regulatory system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be repaired.” 

Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat, said in a press release that the report “lays out disturbing revelations” about how Boeing withheld information and escaped regulatory scrutiny.

“What’s particularly infuriating is how Boeing and FAA both gambled with public safety in the critical time period between the two crashes,” DeFazio said. “On behalf of the families of the victims of both crashes, as well as anyone who steps on a plane expecting to arrive at their destination safely, we are making this report public to put a spotlight not only on the broken safety culture at Boeing but also the gaps in the regulatory system at the FAA that allowed this fatally-flawed plane into service.”

The report found Boeing had presented the new aircraft as the latest update in its previous generation of 737s, when in fact the new 737 Max model included updates that should have required additional pilot training — a task investigators found that Boeing had a financial incentive to avoid. According to a 2011 contract with Southwest Airlines, additional training would bring the price of each 737 Max down by $1 million if training was needed. Boeing was also under tremendous financial pressure to compete with another new aircraft from A32neo, the Airbus, and deliver profits for Wall Street. 

What’s more, the airplane manufacturer made faulty assumptions about a 737 Max software technology called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) — designed to automatically push the plane’s nose down in certain conditions, a function incorporated to offset the Max’s more powerful engines, which had been placed further forward on the craft’s wings compared to older models. Boeing initially didn’t tell pilots about the MCAS system, assuming pilots would be able to mitigate its software malfunctions. In both fatal crashes, MCAS pointed the nose of the planes down. 

The report found that Boeing withheld information from the FAA, like internal test data that showed it took pilots more than 10 seconds to diagnose and respond to automatic MCAS aviation flight simulators, a scenario that presents potentially fatal consequences. Federal guidelines assume pilots will be able to respond in 4.

“While it was not required to share this information with the FAA or Boeing customers, it is inconceivable and inexcusable that Boeing withheld this information from them,” the report states. “It also argues strongly for a disclosure requirement. Federal guidelines assume pilots will respond to this condition within four seconds.”

Another finding of the committee was that Boeing failed to share that MCAS worked off a single sensor called “angle of attack” for 737 Max, which regularly malfunctioned and had been flagged 216 times to the FAA. During development of the 737 Max, Boeing engineers raised safety concerns about not having a synthetic airspeed system on the 737 as well as the impact of faulty Angle-of-Attack data on MCAS, repetitive MCAS activations on the ability of 737 MAX pilots to maintain control of the aircraft. 

“Ultimately, all of those safety concerns were either inadequately addressed or simply dismissed by Boeing,” the report states.

The report also slams the FAA, saying inadequate oversight jeopardized the safety of flight passengers. Specifically at Boeing’s request the agency overruled several red flags thrown up by FAA technical experts, according to the report, which speaks to previous FAA investigations that highlighted a culture of industry regulators showing leniency on matters of flight safety. 

The report says reforms are needed to improve FAA oversight. While DeFazio did not release any specifics on how those reforms ought to look, he said committee leaders and Republicans are discussing legislation and that he hopes to reach agreement before the end of 2020.

In anticipation of the report’s publication, Boeing issued a statement on the investigation Tuesday. 

“We have learned many hard lessons as a company from the accidents of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, and from the mistakes we have made,” the manufacturer said. “As this report recognizes, we have made fundamental changes to our company as a result, and continue to look for ways to improve. Change is always hard and requires daily commitment, but we as a company are dedicated to doing the work.”

Boeing is testing 737 Max regulators with modified flight-control software and hopes to get the model in air again in late 2020 or early in 2021.

The FAA also issued a Wednesday statement on the report saying it looks forward to building better oversight procedures with the committee. 

“We are already undertaking important initiatives based on what we have learned from our own internal reviews as well as independent reviews of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents,” the regulator said. “These initiatives are focused on advancing overall aviation safety by improving our organization, processes, and culture.” 

It noted that it is following a thorough process for returning the aircraft to service. Last month, the FAA published a notice of proposed rulemaking for an airworthiness directive that will mandate certain design changes to the 737 Max before it can be returned to passenger service. 

“Both Boeing and FAA share responsibility for the development & certification of an aircraft that was unsafe,” the Democrat-controlled Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure tweeted Wednesday.

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