It seems like barely a day goes by without the Wall Street Journal or some other news organization publishing some alarming scoop about oversights or unexplained lapses at Boeing or the FAA during the certification process of the 737 MAX 8.
We’ve already learned that Boeing didn’t realize until after the Lion Air crash back in October that a warning system meant to alert pilots when MCAS – the anti-stall software suspected in contributing to two deadly crashes – was malfunctioning had been made an optional feature on all of the 737 8s it sold to Southwest, its largest customer. And neither did the FAA.
Now, ahead of a hearing before a House Transportation subcommittee on Wednesday, WSJ is reporting that senior FAA officials weren’t involved in the agency’s review of MCAS, despite the unprecedented power delegated to the system in the new generation of 737s, because the agency viewed the system as a “non-critical safety risk.”
Ask how it arrived at this conclusion, the agency told WSJ that Boeing hadn’t designated MCAS as a critical system, and the agency simply took the aerospace company at its word.
The results, these officials said, also indicate that during the certification process, Boeing didn’t flag the automated stall-prevention feature as a system whose malfunction or failure could cause a catastrophic event. Such a designation would have led to more intense scrutiny. FAA engineers and midlevel managers deferred to Boeing’s early safety classification, the inquiry determined, allowing company experts to conduct subsequent analyses of potential hazards with limited agency oversight. Boeing employees who served as designated agency representatives signed off on the final design, according to people familiar with the findings.
The people who described the report didn’t specify what information and safety data Boeing shared with the FAA during the approval process, a topic that is a major focus of various ongoing investigations. Also at issue is whether agency officials performed any assessment on their own about the system’s initial safety classification, according to aviation industry officials, pilot unions and others tracking the investigations.
According to the report details leaked to WSJ, it’s not clear why Boeing didn’t designate MCAS as a ‘critical system’, though the FAA doesn’t believe the company intentionally violated any certification rules. It’s also unclear what kind of oversight process, if any, the FAA exercised over Boeing’s decision. Boeing, in turn, said that it didn’t feel the system was ‘critical’ – and that relying on a single sensor for flight data was appropriate – because pilots could simply switch MCAS off. Though that didn’t pan out in practice, as the pilots of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights both tried, and failed, to disable MCAS before the system forced their planes into a deadly downward dive.
The FAA’s administrative review, launched in March in the wake of the second fatal crash, didn’t uncover efforts by Boeing to flout certification rules or intentionally provide faulty data to the FAA, according to people familiar with the findings. But it remains unclear what formal processes the FAA had in place to conduct an assessment independent of the initial determination by Boeing—that MCAS wasn’t critical to safety and therefore didn’t warrant close FAA scrutiny.
Still, the FAA doesn’t really have an explanation for why it delegated so much authority to Boeing.
In testimony to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee two months ago, Mr. Elwell said detailed safety assessment and approval of the suspect system was “delegated,” or handed over, to Boeing relatively early in the approval process under standard procedures. But he didn’t tell senators how that initial decision was reached or exactly what role FAA officials played in subsequent safety assessments.
The revelations come as Congress has subpoenaed representatives from pilots unions and the major airlines to testify. The DOT is also ramping up its own investigation. One thing is becoming increasingly clear: Before the grounding of the 737 MAX 8 is lifted, lawmakers are going to want answers to why these lapses in oversight occurred.
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