An intensive investigation by a U.S. House Committee into the causes of the two Boeing 737 MAX crashes reveals new details documenting what a final report calls “a disturbing pattern of technical miscalculations and troubling management misjudgments made by Boeing,” along with “grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the U.S. House Transportation Committee, signaled in a teleconference briefing that the committee plans to soon propose legislation reforming how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certifies airplanes as safe to fly.
He called it “mind boggling” that the MAX, which had two crashes that killed 346 people within five months, was originally certified by both Boeing and the FAA as compliant with all safety regulations.
“The problem is, it was compliant and not safe. And people died,” DeFazio said, “Obviously the system is inadequate.”
The report says Boeing engineers at various points during development of the MAX raised questions about all the critical design elements of the flight control software that later led to the crashes — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
It cites internal Boeing memos and emails in which engineers asked about the system being triggered by a single sensor, about the potential consequences of a faulty sensor, about how repetitive MCAS activations might affect the ability of pilots to maintain control, and about whether pilots would react in time if MCAS was triggered erroneously.
“Ultimately, all of those safety concerns were either inadequately addressed or simply dismissed by Boeing,” the report states.
Nor did Boeing flag these issues to the FAA. The report documents four instances when Boeing engineers delegated to work on behalf of the safety regulator during the MAX’s certification “failed to represent the interests of the FAA.”
DeFazio said that in February 2019, after the crash of a Lion Air MAX jet but before the Ethiopian Airlines crash, Ali Bahrami, FAA associate administrator for aviation safety, told him the accident was a “one-off” and that “there’s no problem with that plane.”
Yet DeFazio said that, based on a seven-hour interview with Bahrami by committee investigators last December, it appeared the FAA’s head of safety “really didn’t know much of anything about the MAX or its development.”
The House investigation concludes that “excessive FAA delegation to Boeing has eroded FAA’s oversight capabilities.”
DeFazio said the majority Democrats on the committee have been in discussions for weeks with the minority Republican members over “legislation to make sure this never happens again.”
The Senate’s Commerce Committee is likewise considering this week a bill to strengthen the airplane certification process.
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Everett), chair of the Aviation Subcommittee, said the Boeing workers he represents are distraught at the MAX tragedies and that legislators “really do need to act.”
“We’re optimistic we can work it out,” DeFazio said.
Issues raised but dismissed
The report describes how Boeing “failed to classify MCAS as a safety-critical system, which would have attracted greater FAA scrutiny during the certification process.”
At a meeting documented in a