A scathing report from the House of Representatives said Boeing’s “faulty technical assumptions” and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) “grossly insufficient oversight” were responsible for the B737 MAX operating with flawed flight control software, resulting in the Lion Air and Ethiopian accidents. The report, compiled by Democrats on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and Aviation Subcommittee, is the culmination of an 18-month investigation into the accidents and the role the FAA played in certifying the aircraft.
“The MAX crashes were not the result of a singular failure, technical mistake, or mismanaged event,” the report said. “They were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA — the pernicious result of regulatory capture on the part of the FAA with respect to its responsibilities to perform robust oversight of Boeing and to ensure the safety of the flying public.”
The Democratic majority in the Transportation Committee is calling for an overhaul of the way FAA certifies aircraft, alleging that the regulatory agency delegated much of the oversight to Boeing. “FAA management has undercut the authority and judgment of its own technical experts and sided with Boeing on design issues that failed to adequately address safety issues and appear to have violated FAA regulations or guidance,” Congressional investigators said.
The House investigation blamed Boeing for not being transparent about known flaws in the MAX’s design and for downplaying the risk to the flying public. Relying on whistleblower testimony, House Democrats said Boeing accelerated the MAX development timeline and said “schedule pressure was visible to all Boeing employees working on the 737 MAX program.”
“In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from
the FAA, its customers, and 737 MAX pilots,” the report said, adding that Boeing concealed the existence of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System software from pilots.
Republicans on the House Transportation Committee said the report was “partisan” adding that Congress will work with the FAA to address any safety concerns identified by aviation and safety professionals.
Boeing said it has learned “many hard lessons” from the two fatal MAX accidents and has pledged to change its culture. “We have also taken steps to bolster safety across our company, consulting outside experts and learning from best practices in other industries,” a Boeing spokesman said in a statement to Airline Weekly. “We have set up a new safety organization to enhance and standardize safety practices, restructured our engineering organization to give engineers a stronger voice and a more direct line to share concerns with top management, created a permanent Aerospace Safety Committee of our board of directors as well as expanded the role of the Safety Promotion Center.”
The MAX has been grounded since March of last year and is currently undergoing tests of its new flight control software and systems. The FAA, European, Brazilian, and Canadian regulators are evaluating the tests in order to re-certify the aircraft. The MAX is expected to be cleared by the end of the year.
The pandemic has taken the urgency out of the prolonged MAX grounding for many airlines, as the capacity and range boost offered by the MAX isn’t as much of an issue as airlines deal with depressed demand. Production continues, and deliveries are expected to resume shortly after the aircraft is re-certified.
The pandemic also has caused airlines to reconsider their fleet plans. Older, less efficient aircraft are being retired to the desert, while orders and deliveries for newer, more efficient aircraft continue, despite historically depressed demand. The 450 aircraft already produced should be delivered by the end of 2021, said Cowen & Co. analyst Cai von Rumohr, who added that he saw no airline planning to abandon or cancel orders for the type, although some airlines may defer deliveries until demand recovers.
In normal times, a report alleging that hundreds of fatalities resulted from a major regulatory agency delegating its job to a company it oversees would be an unprecedented scandal, and it is. But it’s overshadowed by news of a pandemic that is the worst crisis in the century of commercial air transport.