More Questions Than Answers About Boeing, the 737 Max, and the F.A.A.
Back in March, shortly after the second fatal crash in five months of a Boeing 737 Max aircraft, I wrote, “We need to know a lot more about how the F.A.A. allowed this plane to take to the air.” It took a couple of months, but on Wednesday the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing at which Daniel K. Elwell, the acting head of the Federal Aviation Administration, appeared. Elwell, a Trump appointee who spent five years working for a trade group that represents aerospace firms such as Boeing, pointed out that the F.A.A. is staffed by tens of thousands of public servants who are dedicated to keeping the flying public safe. But his testimony wasn’t entirely reassuring. Indeed, it only raised new questions about the F.A.A.’s dealings with Boeing during the certification process for the 737 Max, and its failure to insure that pilots were informed about a new safety feature on the plane that turned out to have potentially catastrophic effects.
Preliminary evidence from investigations into the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 suggest that, in both cases, inaccurate readings from a flight sensor on the 737 Max activated an automated stall-avoidance system, known as a maneuvering-characteristics-augmentation system (M.C.A.S.), which caused the noses of the two planes to dip repeatedly as the pilots, who hadn’t been trained to deal with such a contingency, fought in vain to regain control. “Aviation is a system based on checks and cross-checks,” Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who heads the Committee, pointed out in his opening statement. “Why were pilots not informed the new system was on their plane and expected to know how to respond appropriately?”
DeFazio also brought up the fact that the F.A.A. routinely subcontracts some aspects of the certification process for new airliners to manufacturers, which it treats as authorized designees of the agency. The F.A.A. has been safely relying on this system for decades, DeFazio noted, but its “stellar record and leadership is now being questioned. Did Boeing design a system that was flawed, or was the FAA fully knowledgeable of the system? . . . What firewalls exist between manufacturers and its FAA-designated representatives to ensure proper oversight and that there is no undue influence placed on them?”
Elwell, who, in addition to being a former lobbyist, is also a former airline pilot, pointed out, in his opening statement, that since 1997 “the risk of a fatal commercial aviation accident in the United States has been cut by 94 percent.” He defended the delegation of some safety responsibilities to airline manufacturers, saying it was “critical to the success and effectiveness of the certification process.” Over the years, seventy-nine organizations had received “Organization Designation Authorization (ODA)” to act as the F.A.A.’s safety agents, he said. “This is not self-certification; the FAA retains strict oversight authority.”
But some of Elwell’s testimony seemed to contradict this claim—or, at least, not fully support it. In 2012, he explained, the F.A.A. agreed to treat the 737 Max as just another variation of the venerable 737, and confirmed that Boeing could act as its agent during the certification process, even though the new plane would be substantially longer than previous versions, with bigger engines mounted in a different position on its wings—alterations that changed its aerodynamics, and, in some circumstances, made it more likely to suffer an engine stall. Boeing’s engineers decided that the altered aerodynamics justified the installation of the M.C.A.S. system. But, despite Elwell’s claim that the certification process involved “strict oversight,” the F.A.A. seems to have relied on assurances from Boeing about the new safety feature. “FAA engineers and midlevel managers deferred to Boeing’s early safety classification . . . allowing company experts to conduct subsequent analyses of potential hazards with limited agency oversight,” the Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday. “Boeing employees who served as designated agency representatives signed off on the final design, according to people familiar with the findings.”
Evidently, senior F.A.A. officials didn’t know much, if anything, about the M.C.A.S. feature until after the Lion Air crash. Neither did many pilots. Reportedly, it wasn’t included in the 737 Max safety manuals that Boeing provided to airlines. And yet the new system was designed to kick in repeatedly if it sensed a dangerous angle of attack. Investigators have determined that, during the doomed Lion Air flight, the pilots tried dozens of times to disengage the M.C.A.S. Earlier this week, news organizations obtained audio of a meeting in November, 2018, shortly after the Lion Air crash, between representatives of the American Airlines pilots’ union and Boeing. “We flat out deserve to know what is on our airplanes,” one pilot is heard saying. Another says, “These guys didn’t even know the damn system was on the airplane—nor did anybody else. We’re the last line of defense to being in that smoking hole. And we need the knowledge.”
One member of the pilots’ delegation also pressed Boeing to introduce an immediate fix to the M.C.A.S. system, even if this involved grounding the 737 Max fleet temporarily. A Boeing executive named Mike Sinnett rejected this idea, and he also denied that the company should have informed pilots about the new feature and how it could malfunction. “In a million miles you’re going to maybe fly this airplane, maybe once you’re going to see this, ever,” he said. “So we try not to overload the crews with information that’s unnecessary.”
Obviously, Boeing bears a lot of responsibility, and it is now facing numerous inquiries, including a criminal one. But the F.A.A. is also culpable, and not just for its hands-off approach during the certification process. After the Lion Air crash, it ordered airlines to change their safety manuals to include more information on the M.C.A.S., but it didn’t insist on Boeing installing an immediate fix to the system. Even after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, it allowed the 737 Max to keep flying until various foreign governments grounded it.
During Wednesday’s hearing, Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington State who heads the aviation subcommittee, pointed out that the F.A.A. has a credibility problem. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat, put the point more forcefully. Addressing Elwell directly, she said that the public has gained the impression that “you were in bed with those you were supposed to be regulating.” Based on what we’ve learned in the past couple of months, that isn’t just an impression. It’s the truth. The problem predates the Trump Administration, and it urgently needs dealing with.