UPDATED: Boeing, FAA ‘jeopardised the safety of the flying public’ with 737 MAX actions

US Congressional report says Boeing’s focus on costs, schedules led to missteps and 'culture of concealment' hid critical safety systems; FAA brass slammed for overruling technical experts to favour American plane maker competing against Airbus; Boeing faces huge fine for installing equipment on MAX and other planes before approval given; CEO Calhoun tries to walk back comments blaming predecessor for MAX woes.

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Boeing has been hit by the double whammy of the grounding of its 737 MAX following two crashes that killed 346 people and the COVID-19 virus. It's trying to restore confidence in both the passenger sector and with its own customers.(PHOTO: Shutterstock)

A US Congressional committee investigating two Boeing 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people has slammed Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in a report released Friday (6 March) that said the plane maker fostered a “culture of concealment” and was so focussed on cutting costs and rushing to meet schedules that it “jeopardised the safety of the flying public”.

The House report found Boeing had a culture of concealment and too much control over the 737 MAX approval process. To download the report, click on the photo.

The report also criticised the FAA for allowing Boeing to have too much control over the 737 MAX certification process, saying the “FAA’s current oversight structure with respect to Boeing creates inherent conflicts of interest that have (again) jeopardised the safety of the flying public”.

“The committee’s investigation documented several instances where Boeing authorised representatives (ARs)—Boeing employees who are granted special permission to represent the interests of the FAA and to act on the agency’s behalf in validating aircraft systems and designs’ compliance with FAA requirements—failed to take appropriate actions to represent the interests of the FAA and to protect the flying public,” the report said.

The report was prepared and released by the US House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, which has been investigating Boeing and the FAA since the 2018 crash of a 737 MAX operated by Indonesian carrier Lion Air that killed all 189 passengers and crew and the 2019 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX that killed all 157 passengers and crew.

Boeing said in a statement that “our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families that lost loved ones in these accidents. We have cooperated extensively for the past year with the committee’s investigation. We will review this preliminary report.”

The House report said there were “multiple factors” involved in the fatal crashes, adding “for two brand-new aircraft, of a brand-new derivative model, to crash within five months of each other was extraordinary and unprecedented in modern times”. The report also said both crashes “shared a key contributing factor: A new software system called the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which Boeing developed to address stability issues in certain flight conditions induced by the plane’s new, larger engines, and their relative placement on the 737 MAX aircraft”.

“Our committee’s investigation will continue for the foreseeable future, as there are a number of leads we continue to chase down to better understand how the system failed so horribly,” said the chairman of the House committee, Peter DeFazio, (D-OR). “But after nearly 12 months of reviewing internal documents and conducting interviews, our committee has been able to bring into focus the multiple factors that allowed an unairworthy airplane to be put into service, leading to the tragic and avoidable deaths of 346 people…The public deserves peace of mind that safety is always the top priority for everyone who has a role in our aviation system.”

While Boeing has vehemently denied since the two crashes that its focus on cost-cutting and efforts to quickly launch a competitor to the Airbus A320neo took precedence over safety, the House report said, “the committee’s investigation has identified several instances where the desire to meet these (financial) goals and (schedule) expectations jeopardised the safety of the flying public”.

The House report also said Boeing made “fundamentally faulty assumptions about critical technologies on the 737 MAX, most notably with MCAS” and said it was “incorrect” for Boeing to allow the plane to rely on a single angle of attack (AOA) sensor for automatic activation and for basically hiding the fact that the MCAS system even existed. Boeing had worked very hard to downplay the significance of the system as a way to speed its certification because if it had been classified as a “safety-critical” system, pilots would have had to undergo additional training to operate the plane and Boeing wanted to speed the transition from the 737NG to the MAX. Boeing even cut special deals with at least one airline, Southwest in the US, under which Boeing would pay Southwest US$1 million per MAX purchased if pilots were required to undergo additional training.

Families and friends of the passengers killed in two crashes of the 737 MAX hold up photos of the dead at a US Senate hearing on Boeing and the 737 MAX. (PHOTO: File)

The House report also said the operation of MCAS also “violated Boeing’s own internal design guidelines established during development” and that a “culture of concealment” at Boeing led to the company “in several critical instances” to withhold “crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and 737 MAX pilots”.

“This included hiding the very existence of MCAS from 737 MAX pilots13 and failing to disclose that the AOA disagree alert was inoperable on the majority of the 737 MAX fleet, despite having been certified as a standard cockpit feature,” the report found.

The committee also said that the FAA’s current oversight structure “creates inherent conflicts of interest that have jeopardised the safety of the flying public” and said Boeing had too much influence over the FAA.

“The investigation documented several instances where Boeing authorised representatives (ARs)—Boeing employees who are granted special permission to represent the interests of the FAA and to act on the agency’s behalf in validating aircraft systems and designs’ compliance with FAA requirements—failed to take appropriate actions to represent the interests of the FAA and to protect the flying public. Multiple career FAA officials have documented examples to the committee where FAA management overruled the determination of the FAA’s own technical experts at the behest of Boeing. In these cases, FAA technical and safety experts determined that certain Boeing design approaches on its transport category aircraft were potentially unsafe and failed to comply with FAA regulations, only to have FAA management overrule them and side with Boeing instead”, the report said.

The committee concluded that: “These preliminary investigative findings make clear that Boeing must create and maintain an effective and vigorous safety culture and the FAA must develop a more aggressive certification and oversight structure to ensure safe aircraft designs and to regain the confidence of the flying public. We hope these preliminary findings will help pave the way for legislative reforms as the committee’s investigation continues to identify the actions and events that undermined the design, development, and certification of the 737 MAX aircraft and led to the tragic death of 346 people.”

FAA PROPOSES US$19 MILLION FINE FOR 737 NON-APPROVED EQUIPMENT

Grounded 737 MAX models. (PHOTO: Shutterstock)

The FAA announced Friday (6 March) that it was proposing a US$19.68 million civil penalty against Boeing for installing equipment on hundreds of the company’s 737 aircraft containing sensors that were not approved for that equipment. The FAA alleges that between June 2015 and April 2019, Boeing installed Rockwell Collins Head-up Guidance Systems on 791 jetliners, including 618 Boeing 737 NGs and 173 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. The FAA alleges that the guidance systems in these aircraft were equipped with sensors that had not been tested or approved as being compatible with those guidance systems.

The FAA alleges that Boeing violated Federal Aviation Regulations when it certified these aircraft as airworthy when they were not in conformance with their type certificate. The agency further alleges that Boeing failed to follow its own Business Process Instructions, which are in place to help prevent such situations from occurring.

The manufacturer of the head-up guidance system, Rockwell Collins, subsequently conducted the necessary testing and risk analysis and updated the documents.

Boeing has 30 days to respond the FAA’s enforcement letter.

CEO CALHOUN BACKTRACKS ON COMMENTS BLAMING PREDECESSOR

Boeing President and CEO David Calhoun. (PHOTO: Boeing)

David Calhoun, Boeing’s chief executive, emailed senior leaders at the company to apologise for remarks he made in a New York Times article in which he criticised Boeing’s former chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, saying the former CEO ramped up production rates before the supply chain was ready and angered regulators with overly optimistic projections about the return of the 737 Max. “I am both embarrassed and regretful about the article,” Calhoun wrote in the email, according to the New York Times. “It suggests I broke my promise to former CEO Dennis Muilenburg, the executive team and our people that I would have their back when it counted most. I want to reassure you that my promise remains intact.” Calhoun, who was on Boeing’s board for the duration of  Muilenburg’s tenure as chief executive, sought to soften his criticism of his predecessor. He added that he did the interview “in the interest of demonstrating transparency and straight talk about our leadership point of view and current situation.”

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