US Congress report blasts Boeing and FAA over 737 Max failures

A House committee issued a scathing report on Wednesday questioning whether Boeing and government regulators have recognised the problems that caused two deadly 737 Max jet crashes and whether either will be willing to make significant changes to fix them.

Staff members from the Democrat-controlled 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 committee identified many deficiencies in the Federal Aviation Administration approval process for new jetliners. But both the agency and Boeing have said certification of the Max complied with FAA regulations, the 246-page report said.

“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 staff wrote in the report released early on Wednesday.

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, a Democrat representing Oregon.

“Obviously, the system is inadequate,” DeFazio said. “We will be adopting significant reforms.”

The Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday could make changes to a bipartisan bill introduced in June giving the FAA more control over picking company employees who sign off on safety decisions. One improvement may be that a plane with significant changes from previous models would need more FAA review.

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, 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 investigators mainly focused on the reason Boeing was able to get the jet approved with minimal pilot training: it convinced the FAA that the Max was an updated version of previous-generation 737s.

But in fact, Boeing equipped the plane with software called MCAS, an acronym for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which automatically lowers the plane’s nose to prevent an aerodynamic stall. Initially, pilots worldwide were not 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 did not disclose that MCAS worked off a single sensor called “angle of attack,” which measures a plane’s pitch. It also did not disclose that a gauge that would have alerted pilots to a malfunctioning sensor did not 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.

Four Boeing employees working as “authorised representatives” with permission to act on the FAA’s behalf to validate aircraft systems knew about the test pilot’s slow response. But there was no evidence that they reported this to the FAA, the report said.

Another authorised representative raised concerns in 2016 about hazards of MCAS repeatedly pointing the plane’s nose down, but the concerns never made it to the FAA.

Repeated MCAS activation and faulty sensors “were the core contributing factors that led to the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes more than two years later,” the report said.

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