The tragic and inexcusable failures of the 737 MAX have shredded all confidence that Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration are competently protecting the flying public. As presented in The Seattle Times’ coverage and confirmed in Wednesday’s Congressional inquest, the federal agency charged with governing the manufacturer has tilted too far toward deference, rather than regulation.
The FAA must reassert its authority as an agency responsible for the safety of millions of lives and hold Boeing accountable. And Boeing must work diligently to restore the sense of integrity it earned across generations but damaged with its apparent rush to get the 737 MAX to customer airlines.
The chasm of public doubt cannot be repaired by simply trumpeting a software fix for the 737 MAX’s stabilization mechanism. A multi-institutional failure of this magnitude calls for structural reforms at the FAA to reconstitute meaningful oversight. The reputational damage need not be permanent. To heal itself, Boeing needs to accept some necessary medicine.
The world now knows the tragic falsity of Boeing’s sales pitch that the 737 MAX required minimal new training for 737 pilots. Accordingly, the first step toward reform is undertaking every fix — of computer software, machinery and training — necessary to make these airplanes completely safe before another passenger is allowed to board one. If this takes extended time, so be it. The stakes are too enormous for any shortcuts.
And Boeing’s long ascent back into trust will force the company to confront whether it wants to pursue short-term profits or long-term viability.
As detailed in a May 5 story by The Seattle Times’ Dominic Gates and Mike Baker and spotlighted at the hearing, engineers at Boeing who conduct key aircraft-certification reviews have their findings filtered through Boeing managers.
This practice must be re-examined and potentially unwound.
The FAA’s history of having private workers conduct reviews goes back more than six decades, and for solid reasons. Aircraft technology changes too fast for government to keep on the leading edge. As Aviation Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Everett, put it during the hearing, the practice is an “over-evolved” incarnation of a good idea.
In a previous structure that regulators should consider restoring, Boeing’s staff engineers sent their reviews directly to the FAA, which made certification decisions. In an attempt to add efficiency, a federal change in 2004 inserted Boeing managers — the same people responsible for getting planes complete and to their buyers — as intermediaries between the FAA and the engineers.
This created a malignant conflict of interest. It resulted in Boeing management pressuring engineers toward profit-boosting leniency. A reversal is a moral obligation.
Engineers must be able to present the FAA with honest safety reports without fear of reprisal. The FAA and Boeing must present the public with a trustworthy process to regain their reputations and trust.