A US Congressional report released Wednesday (16 September) called into question the regulations and processes that allowed the Boeing 737 MAX to be certified as fit to fly and questioned whether the US Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing were willing to make the necessary changes to make the plane safe to fly again.
Staff members from the US House of Representatives Transportation Committee blamed the crashes that killed 346 people on the “horrific culmination” of failed government oversight, design flaws and a lack of action at Boeing despite knowing about problems. “The fact that a compliant airplane suffered from two deadly crashes in less than five months is clear evidence that the current regulatory system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be repaired,” the report said.
Download the House committee report here.
The report highlights the need for legislation to fix the approval process and deal with the FAA’s delegation of some oversight tasks to aircraft manufacturer employees, said Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Oregon. “Obviously the system is inadequate,” DeFazio told reporters. “We will be adopting significant reforms.”
The House report stems from an 18-month investigation into the October 2018 crash of Lion Air flight 610 in Indonesia and the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 in March of 2019. The MAX was grounded worldwide shortly after the Ethiopia crash. Regulators are testing planes with revamped flight control software, and Boeing hopes to get the MAX flying again late this year or early in 2021.
The investigation and others have focussed on a piece of software called MCAS, an acronym for Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, which automatically lowers the plane’s nose to prevent an aerodynamic stall. Initially, pilots worldwide weren’t told about the system, which Boeing said was needed because the MAX had bigger, more powerful engines that were placed further forward on the wings than older 737s. In both crashes, MCAS repeatedly pointed the nose down, forcing pilots into unsuccessful struggles to keep the planes aloft.
Committee investigators said they found several instances in which Boeing concealed information about MCAS from the FAA and airlines. The Chicago-based company didn’t disclose that MCAS worked off a single sensor that measures a plane’s pitch. It also didn’t disclose that a gauge that would have alerted pilots to a malfunctioning sensor didn’t work on the vast majority of the jets. Boeing also concealed that it took a company test pilot more than 10 seconds to determine that MCAS was operating and respond to it, a condition that the pilot found to be “catastrophic,” according to the report. Federal guidelines assume pilots will respond to this condition within four seconds.
Boeing said in a statement that it “cooperated fully and extensively with the committee’s inquiry since it began in early 2019. We have been hard at work strengthening our safety culture and rebuilding trust with our customers, regulators, and the flying public. The passengers and crew on board Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, as well as their loved ones, continue to be in our thoughts and prayers. Multiple committees, experts, and governmental authorities have examined issues related to the MAX, and we have incorporated many of their recommendations, as well as the results of our own internal reviews, into the 737 MAX and the overall airplane design process.
“The revised design of the MAX has received intensive internal and regulatory review, including more than 375,000 engineering and test hours and 1,300 test flights. Once the FAA and other regulators have determined the MAX can safely return to service, it will be one of the most thoroughly-scrutinised aircraft in history, and we have full confidence in its safety,” Boeing said.
The congressional report identified five broad problems with the plane’s design, according to media reports:
- Boeing was trying to compete with the new Airbus A320neo and this led Boeing to make production goals and cost-cutting a higher priority than safety;
- Boeing made deadly assumptions about the MCAS system, which was blamed for sending the planes into nosedives;
- Boeing withheld critical information from the FAA;
- The FAA’s practice of delegating oversight authority to Boeing employees left it in the dark;
- The FAA’s management sided with Boeing and dismissing its own experts.