scorecardA blistering House report slams Boeing and the FAA over 'serious flaws and missteps' that led to two deadly 737 Max crashes
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A blistering House report slams Boeing and the FAA over 'serious flaws and missteps' that led to two deadly 737 Max crashes

David Slotnick   

A blistering House report slams Boeing and the FAA over 'serious flaws and missteps' that led to two deadly 737 Max crashes
LifeThelife6 min read

The two 737 Max crashes that killed 346 people and led to a years-long grounding of the entire global fleet of the plane were the result of "a horrific culmination" of engineering missteps, poor management, and "grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA," the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure said in a new report on Wednesday.

The report, from House Democrats on the committee, soundly condemned Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration and questioned whether the two bodies have adequately addressed the systemic issues that led to the crashes.

No Republicans on the committee signed off on the report — in a joint statement, Republican members Sam Graves (R-MO) and Garret Graves (R-LA) accused the Democrats of issuing a partisan report, and said that the way that the FAA certifies planes is not fundamentally in need of reform.

The report described Boeing as a changed company that has lost its way and "is in serious need of a safety reset. Boeing has gone from being a great engineering company to being a big business focused on financial success."

"Continuing on the same path it followed with the 737 MAX, where safety was sacrificed to production pressures, exposes the company to potentially repeating those mistakes and to additional reputational damage and financial losses," the report added.

The 218-page House committee report comes from an 18-month investigation that included dozens of interviews with Boeing and FAA employees and executives and about 600,000 pages of documents.

"Our report lays out disturbing revelations about how Boeing—under pressure to compete with Airbus and deliver profits for Wall Street—escaped scrutiny from the FAA, withheld critical information from pilots, and ultimately put planes into service that killed 346 innocent people," Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, said in a statement.

"What's particularly infuriating is how Boeing and FAA both gambled with public safety in the critical time period between the two crashes," he added.

In a statement, Boeing said that it was dedicated to implementing changes to address the issues that led to the crashes.

"We have learned many hard lessons as a company from the accidents of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, and from the mistakes we have made," the company said. "As this report recognizes, we have made fundamental changes to our company as a result, and continue to look for ways to improve."

The report identified five broad problems throughout the plane's development that led to the crashes.

First, pressure to compete with rival Airbus' new A320neo aircraft led Boeing to prioritize deadlines and production rates over safety, the report argues.

Next, the company made "fundamentally faulty assumptions" about a new flight-control system on the Max, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

MCAS was designed to compensate for the 737 Max having larger engines than previous 737 generations. The larger engines could cause the plane's nose to tip upward, leading to a stall — in that situation, MCAS could automatically point the nose down to negate the effect of the engine size.

In essence, Boeing assumed that pilots would be able to handle any potential malfunction by addressing the effects of it, despite not knowing specifically about MCAS.

Third, Boeing withheld certain crucial information from the FAA, airline customers, and pilots, the report claims, part of a "culture of concealment." For instance, Boeing did not flag "internal test data that revealed it took a Boeing test pilot more than 10 seconds to diagnose and respond to uncommanded MCAS activation in a flight simulator, a condition the pilot described as 'catastrophic.'" Federal guidelines assume that pilots will be able to react within four seconds.

Fourth, the FAA's practice of delegating oversight of certain tasks to Boeing created "inherent conflicts of interest that have jeopardized the safety of the flying public," the report claimed. The Democrats said that there were multiple instances in which Boeing workers, who were tasked with performing oversight on behalf of the FAA, had failed to notify the agency of potential issues.

Finally, the report found cases in which FAA officials were deferential to Boeing, accepting Boeing's data and information even when it was contradicted by the agency's own technical experts.

What the findings mean as Boeing works to get the plane back in the air.

The findings are largely consistent with the information that has been revealed by whistleblowers, hearing testimonies, and interim reports.

The report also comes as the FAA moves nearer to recertifying the 737 Max to fly. The agency began test flights in June, and published its proposed changes to the plane in August — among the final steps before the plane can return to service.

Other nation's aviation safety agencies have also conducted their own test flights.

In the preliminary summary issued with the FAA's proposed changes, the agency wrote that it found that Boeing's proposed changes to the Max design, along with flight crew and maintenance procedures, "effectively mitigate the airplane-related safety issues that contributed to the Flight 610 and Flight 302 accidents."

Legislation that would make significant changes to the FAA's aircraft certification process, addressing numerous issues raised in the report, is expected to be advanced in the House and Senate as soon as this week, according to Politico.

The FAA, in a statement provided to Business Insider, said it was also implementing its own changes based on the saga.

"We are already undertaking important initiatives based on what we have learned from our own internal reviews as well as independent reviews of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents," an agency spokesperson wrote in the statement. "These initiatives are focused on advancing overall aviation safety by improving our organization, processes, and culture."

Family members of crash victims, however, disagree with Boeing and the FAA.

"While Boeing proclaims to be a changed company, in court they continue to hide documents, deny that they put profits over safety and refuse to be held accountable," Yalena Lopez-Lewis, whose husband Antoine Lewis died in the crash of Ethiopian Flight 302, said in a statement. "The truth is that 346 people are dead because Boeing cut corners, lied to regulators, and simply considers this the cost of doing business."

The 737 Max has been grounded since March 2019.

The first 737 Max deadly crash, Lion Air Flight 610, plunged into the Java Sea off Indonesia in October 2018 12 minutes after takeoff, during which the pilots struggled to control the plane. The crash killed 189 people.

Although questions immediately emerged about a new flight-control system on the 737 Max — the latest iteration of Boeing's 55-year-old workhorse — the plane largely remained in service, with an emergency Airworthiness Directive issued by Boeing and the FAA warning pilots about possible control issues.

The second crash occurred in March 2019, when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed six minutes after taking off from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killing all 157 on board. Within days, the plane type was grounded worldwide. On March 13, 2019, the US became one of the last countries to ground the jet.

Investigators quickly found that both crashes were linked to MCAS.

The system could be activated by a faulty reading from a single angle-of-attack sensor, without any redundancies or backups. In both crashes the sensors are thought to have failed, sending erroneous data to the flight computer and, without a redundant check in place, triggering the automated system.

Although the grounding was initially expected to last a few weeks, Boeing and the FAA found additional safety hazards — eventually requiring Boeing to redesign the jet's entire flight computer rather than just the MCAS software.

Boeing previously said it expected the jet to return to service in the second half of this year. Although airlines have eagerly awaited the jet's return, the collapse of travel demand due to the coronavirus pandemic has dulled the need for the added capacity.