A U.S. House committee hearing Wednesday offered evidence that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) judged there was a high risk of future Boeing 737 MAX accidents after the first deadly crash last year, yet allowed it to keep flying.
An internal FAA risk analysis completed a month after the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last fall estimated that without action to address the jet’s faulty flight control system, it would suffer an average of about one crash every three years during the life of the MAX’s worldwide fleet.
That revelation drew urgent questions during the hearing as to why the MAX was not grounded then, before the second crash in Ethiopia.
Addressing that as well as a string of episodes where top agency managers overruled their technical staff and sided with Boeing, House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee chairman Peter DeFazio told FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, “We may have a captive regulatory problem in the field offices, because it’s an awful lot of decisions that have been going in Boeing’s favor.”
In separate testimony, former FAA engineer Michael Collins recounted how at least 18 experts within the safety agency all concurred that Boeing should be required to modify the 1960s-era design of the MAX’s rudder cables to meet current regulations — only to be stymied by an FAA manager.
The FAA experts considered the modification necessary to ensure sufficient redundancy in case an engine blowout severed some of the cables.
Yet as certification of the MAX loomed and Boeing hadn’t changed the design, the head of the FAA’s Seattle-based Transport Airplane Directorate, Jeff Duven, overruled his own technical specialists and approved the unmodified Boeing design.
Another witness, Edward Pierson, former senior manager of final assembly at Boeing’s 737 plant in Renton, recounted how he had warned Boeing leadership months before the crashes that 737 production at the factory in Renton “was stressed beyond anything in my experience,” and urged them to shut the line down to restore order.
Pierson said Boeing dismissed his efforts to draw attention to the chaotic production conditions, which the FAA failed to monitor, and he suggested that the dysfunction in the factory may have contributed to the 737 MAX crashes.
At the hearing, new FAA Administrator Dickson had few specific responses to the testimony but promised to protect his agency’s independence and make improvements in how it operates.
The FAA risk analysis — a document known as a Transport Airplane Risk Analysis — was dated Dec. 3, 2018. It projected that without action, the failure of the flight control system that had brought down Lion Air Flight 610 on Oct. 29 would result in about 15 more fatal crashes during the 45-year life of the 737 MAX fleet globally.
That estimate built in an assumption that one flight crew out of 100 would fail to react effectively and cope with the emergency, even though it was known at the time that out of two Lion Air flights where the system went haywire, one ended in catastrophe.
DeFazio asked Dickson, who wasn’t at the FAA at the time of the crashes, why the MAX had not been grounded immediately after that analysis indicated such an unacceptably high risk.
“I am not aware of any other aircraft where this sort of analysis has found something that’s going to cause crashes inevitably and be allowed to fly. It just doesn’t meet your standards,” DeFazio said.
Dickson responded that the analysis was used as a tool to work out the timeframe in which action was needed, and that by the time it was completed, Boeing was already working on a software fix for the flight control system.
Earl Lawrence, executive director of the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service, added that because the agency had already issued an airworthiness directive informing pilots of the danger of the flight control system, and because Boeing was redesigning the faulty system, no additional action was taken after the analysis came up with the high risk assessment.
DeFazio said when he and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, the aviation subcommittee chair, met with FAA safety chief Ali Bahrami in February, before the second crash, Bahrami told them the Lion Air crash “was a one-off accident.”
“Yet this analysis was available at that time,” DeFazio said. “He (Bahrami) apparently says he was unaware of it.”
Members of the House committee recently questioned Bahrami privately for seven hours, DeFazio said, but the safety chief told them the analysis wasn’t brought to his attention.
The MAX risk analysis, as well as other safety decisions made by FAA officials to overrule the agency’s own safety experts, raise concerns about Boeing’s influence on the FAA’s regional offices in Seattle, DeFazio said. He cited as examples the agency’s decisions to give Boeing a pass, over safety analysts’ objections, on the 737 MAX’s compliance with rudder cable requirements and allowing it to remove some 787 lighting protection measures.
Boeing in a statement Wednesday said that it did its own similar risk analysis for the MAX after the Lion Air crash and that it produced a result consistent with the FAA’s.
Boeing said both analyses were used to provide “guidance on the appropriate timeline for implementing mitigating actions for potential safety issues.”
A week after the first crash, Boeing issued a bulletin to warn pilots of the flight control fault and how to handle it if it misfired in future. Boeing said Wednesday that the FAA judged this “sufficed to allow continued operation of the MAX fleet until changes to the MCAS software could be implemented.”
When Dickson was pushed to say whether the FAA had made a mistake in the decision not to ground the MAX following the high risk analysis, he resisted a definitive answer.
“It’s hard to Monday morning quarterback these decisions,” he said. “The individuals who made those decisions were acting on the best information they had at the time.”
Asked if he would ground the plane given such an analysis in future, he said “With what I know now, today, yes.”
Collins, the former FAA engineer, described a shift in the safety agency’s culture from about 2003 on that put a new emphasis on meeting industry schedule requirements, with FAA managers acquiescing to Boeing demands for faster approval and more delegation of work to the company.
In the case of the 737 MAX rudder cables, the issue of updating the cable design to ensure redundancy if an engine exploded had arisen on previous versions of the 737, and in each case Boeing was exempted from meeting the latest requirement.
When the exemption was granted in 1997 for the previous 737 model, specialists warned that if future engines were bigger, that would create a greater risk.
During certification of the MAX, which has much bigger engines, Collins said, at least 13 FAA aerospace engineers, one pilot and at least four FAA managers disagreed with granting another exemption. He said it was “unprecedented to have that many people document their disagreement.”
He said the decision by the local FAA leader to overrule that consensus was later supported by the deputy director of aircraft certification in Washington, D.C.
DeFazio also mentioned the case of Boeing cutting out some of the lightning protection on the 787 Dreamliner, a move quickly approved by managers to meet Boeing’s jet-delivery schedule despite opposition from FAA technical specialists.
The testimony by Pierson, the senior manager in Renton, referred to the period in 2018 when late deliveries of fuselages and of engines was causing a pile-up of unfinished 737s all around the factory. Parked planes had to be completed out on the ramp; the out-of-sequence work frequently requiring earlier work to be torn out and redone.
It created a chaotic production environment and quality suffered.
“I believe production problems at the Renton factory may have contributed to these two tragic crashes,” Pierson said. “I don’t believe our regulators are paying enough attention to that factory, and I’m calling for further investigation.”
Pierson, a 30-year Navy aviation veteran prior to his 10 years at Boeing, recounted his failed efforts to convince Scott Campbell, then the head of the Renton factory, to temporarily stop the production line to allow workers to catch up.
When he mentioned that he’d seen operations in the military shut down for lesser safety concerns, he said Campbell responded tersely, “The military isn’t a profit-making organization.”
In response, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., extracted a promise from FAA chief Dickson that he will order an investigation of the Renton plant that within the next 60 days will interview at least 10 line workers from the factory.
Dickson, appointed four months ago, added that he is committed to “the separation of safety issues and business issues” in Boeing’s airplane development and production processes.
“We have to make sure that system is absolutely clean,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Dickson said during an interview on CNBC that the FAA clearance needed to return Boeing’s 737 MAX to the skies won’t be completed until 2020, creating yet another slip in Boeing’s hoped-for schedule.
That raises concern that a temporary production halt in Renton may be imminent.
Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers said Wednesday that the jetmaker has nothing new to add about its plans.
“We will continue to assess production decisions based on the timing and conditions of return to service, which will be based on regulatory approvals and may vary by jurisdiction,” said Bickers.