Members of Congress keen to reform the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) welcomed a government report Wednesday that documented how Boeing withheld details of a key new flight control system during certification of its 737 MAX. However, some critics said the report didn’t go far enough.
An FAA safety engineer familiar with how the MAX was certified said the report by the Department of Transportation’s inspector general (IG) failed to fully expose failures by the FAA in the regulatory process.
“The report put most of the blame on Boeing for not notifying FAA technical staff about the system,” said the engineer, referring to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that activated erroneously in both crashes. “It didn’t go into much that was critical of the FAA.”
He pointed to how, after the first crash in Indonesia, the FAA issued a pilot procedure for dealing with a malfunction of MCAS that proved inadequate during the second crash in Ethiopia.
“The procedure was faulty in a number of ways. It was provided by Boeing and never validated by the FAA,” said the engineer, speaking on condition he not be identified because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the report. “Where was the FAA?”
A Boeing spokesperson said in a statement that the company “cooperated fully and extensively” with the IG investigation and that following the accidents it is “committed to transparency with the FAA during all aspects of the airplane certification process.” The company has “made significant changes to improve our support to that regulatory process,” the statement said.
Family members of those who died in the crashes said that while the report added little new information, it strengthened the case for more accountability from both Boeing and the FAA.
“I wish I could say the IG report was shocking,” said Javier de Luis, whose sister Graziella de Luis Ponce died in the Ethiopian crash. “It has been clear to many of us for some time that Boeing did everything it could to keep the details of MCAS from its customers and the FAA.”
De Luis added that the report suggests a “hollowing out of the (FAA) that stripped them of the technical depth, breadth, and numbers to properly carry out their responsibility.”
The IG report, released Wednesday morning, tells how Boeing, to save airlines like Southwest the cost of extra pilot training, deliberately played down the details of MCAS — the system later directly implicated as the cause of the two MAX crashes — so that during certification the FAA entirely missed its significance and danger.
During the regulatory approval process, for example, Boeing didn’t inform an FAA official that its engineers had made substantial changes to MCAS when it requested that he remove all mention of MCAS from the pilot handbook.
Those changes increased the power of MCAS to move the jet’s horizontal tail and push the plane’s nose down and also made it dependent on a single sensor, when the original version of MCAS was triggered by two sensors. Unaware of this, the FAA official granted the request.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said such details in the report reveal “a pattern of Boeing’s deliberate concealment.”
He condemned Boeing’s “reprehensible actions” and the FAA’s “deficient oversight.”
Family members of the crash victims took this as further confirmation of negligence at best.
Zipporah Kuria, whose father Joseph Kuria Waithaka died in the Ethiopian crash, said “the level of complacency, incompetence and negligence on both Boeing and the FAA is hair raising.”
“Boeing deceived their way through the original certification and the FAA slept through it,” she said.
Tarek Milleron, whose niece Samya Rose Stumo also died aboard ET 302, called the report “stomach-turning.”
“FAA managers love to say they are ‘data-driven,'” he said. “But if anything the MAX certification glossed over missing data and faulty reasoning.”
De Luis, himself an MIT-trained aerospace engineer, said he wonders if Boeing’s consistent efforts to hide the presence and capabilities of MCAS were “due to incompetence of numerous Boeing engineers that wanted to toe the party line and make sure no new training was required.”
Proposed FAA reform
Congressional leaders who have been holding hearings on the MAX crashes focused on what can be done to strengthen the FAA’s role.
Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) said the report “confirms that the FAA must be strong, independent, and transparent in order to keep the flying public safe.”
Cantwell, the ranking member on the Senate Commerce Committee that’s been investigating the MAX crashes, recently joined with Commerce Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) to propose legislation that tightens controls on how the FAA delegates oversight work to manufacturers.
“The FAA should not defend the status quo,” Cantwell said, adding that the reforms proposed are needed to “put the FAA back in the driver’s seat and make clear that safety is job one.”
Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the U.S. House Committee on Transportation, said the IG report “reinforces some of the findings of our Committee’s ongoing investigation, which has revealed a number of disturbing patterns, including Boeing’s efforts to conceal critical information from regulators in its rush to get the MAX to market.”
DeFazio said the final report of his committee’s investigation will be released soon and that he’ll also introduce legislation.
The FAA safety engineer noted that the IG report declined to make any new recommendations, instead merely laying out a timeline and stating the bald facts of the MAX certification process.
The report noted, for example, that the FAA was originally going to retain oversight of MCAS but that four years into the certification process, in fall 2016, the FAA delegated that work to Boeing.
“What was the reason? Did the FAA make a risk assessment? Was it a formal decision?” he asked. The report gives no indication.
“It gets to the core of the delegation process,” the engineer said. “The IG didn’t pin down what went wrong.”
With both houses of Congress already preparing legislation to reform the process, the engineer said the IG could have come up with specific recommendations for change.
In the current political climate, after President Donald Trump recently fired two prominent inspectors general, he questioned the independence of the IG’s office from influence by Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, who oversees the FAA.
“No recommendations this late?” the FAA engineer said. “It’s a total cop-out.”
Meanwhile on Wednesday in Seattle, the FAA completed its MAX re-certification flights, a significant step toward the aircraft returning to passenger service.
The Boeing spokesperson said the jetmaker has “dedicated all resources necessary to ensure that the improvements to the 737 MAX are comprehensive and thoroughly tested.”
The software improvements will ensure MCAS cannot be activated based on signals from a single sensor and cannot be activated repeatedly.
In addition, he said, Boeing has moved to “improve the safety culture of our company,” appointing a permanent safety committee of Boeing’s board of directors and reorganizing the reporting structure of Boeing’s engineering organization.
“When the MAX returns to service, it will be one of the most thoroughly scrutinized aircraft in history, and we have full confidence in its safety,” Boeing said.