A congressional panel investigating the deadly crashes of two Boeing 737 MAX jets that killed 346 people wants to interview the engineer who filed a scathing internal ethics complaint alleging that company management blocked key safety improvements during the aircraft’s development due to cost concerns.
U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio, in a statement Wednesday, referred to a Seattle Times report that first detailed engineer Curtis Ewbank’s allegations. He added the committee has yet to find Ewbank’s ethics complaint in documents Boeing so far has turned over in response to the panel’s request for internal records six months ago.
“These reports certainly add to my concern that production pressures may have impacted safety on the 737 MAX, which is exactly why it’s so critical we get to the bottom of this,” according to the statement from DeFazio, D-Ore. “On April 1st we asked Boeing for all complaints regarding the 737 MAX and though we’ve been poring over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and emails from Boeing and FAA, we were not aware of Mr. Ewbank’s complaint.”
While it’s possible the committee “already has Mr. Ewbanks’ complaint in a tranche received from Boeing,” the panel now “wants Boeing to either supply the complaint for the first time, or point out in the documents where this complaint may be,” a committee spokeswoman said in an email Thursday. The panel also asked Boeing to make Ewbank available for an interview.
“All of this information is critical to have as we prepare for our Committee’s October 30th hearing with Boeing’s CEO, as well as Boeing’s Chief Engineer of its Commercial Airplanes division, and the Chief Pilot for the 737,” DeFazio’s statement said.
Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday. An attorney for Ewbank, who previously declined to comment, also did not immediately respond to messages Thursday.
Ewbank’s ethics complaint, a copy of which was reviewed by The Seattle Times, was submitted on April 29, four weeks after the panel’s document request to Boeing. It cites specific proposals for 737 safety upgrades and generally criticizes the culture at Boeing, questioning whether the company’s safety priorities were compromised by business considerations during the MAX’s development.
The complaint suggests that one of the proposed systems for the MAX could have potentially prevented the fatal crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 last year, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 this year.
A new anti-stall flight-control system, called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, that was implicated as a factor in both MAX crashes, may not have been activated by faulty sensors had a system called synthetic airspeed been included on the jet as proposed, the complaint suggested. Three of Ewbank’s former colleagues interviewed by The Seattle Times concurred.
The FBI, which is conducting a criminal investigation related to the MAX crashes, has since interviewed at least two Boeing employees about the complaint.
“This whistleblower complaint is serious and the Committee is taking it very seriously,” Washington Democratic Rep. Rick Larsen said in a statement Thursday.
Ewbank filed his complaint seven weeks after the second fatal crash. By then, the FAA had ordered the airplane grounded and various investigations were launched, including probes by House and Senate panels.
Boeing is now preparing to submit software fixes to resolve the problems with MCAS, as well as address other issues to convince regulators to return the MAX to flight. The company also faces further scrutiny in the months ahead. The Department of Justice’s criminal investigation remains ongoing, foreign regulators and investigators have launched their own reviews, and the Congressional panels are preparing more hearings. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg is expect to address the House transportation panel on Oct. 30.
Federal lawmakers have heavily scrutinized the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) regulatory role in the 737 MAX’s development, including delegation of some safety certification aspects to Boeing itself while the company pushed for approval of the airliner.
Since March, the House transportation panel has held three hearings and issued nine records requests “as it continues to conduct a thorough investigation into the FAA’s certification of the 737 MAX,” according to Larsen, a member of the committee who also chairs its aviation subcommittee.
In May, a Seattle Times investigation found that Boeing engineers who were officially authorized as FAA delegates to help certify the MAX as safe and airworthy faced heavy pressure from Boeing managers to limit safety analyses and testing so the company could meet its schedule and keep down costs. The Times also reported Thursday, based on a review of documents, that Boeing convinced the FAA to relax safety standards for the MAX related to cockpit alerts that would warn pilots if something went wrong during flight.
Late last month, Boeing’s board of directors recommended a series of internal reforms, including changing oversight of the controversial FAA delegation program so that authorized representatives report to a new aviation safety organization within the company, rather than to business and program managers.
The Times story about Ewbank’s complaint, followed by a report in The New York Times, quickly caught the attention of the House panel, prompting the request to interview the engineer, committee spokeswoman Kerry Arndt said Thursday.
Should Boeing make Ewing available for the interview, committee staff likely would interview him in private — as it has with other interviews concerning the MAX probe to date, Arndt said.
“A lot of work in this investigation has not been public-facing,” Arndt said. “That’s more so than usual because of the sensitive nature of the information. It’s been pretty locked down at this point.”