A new report from the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) panel, convened by the FAA in April following two fatal crashes in less than five months involving the Boeing 737 MAX 8, said the plane’s new flight control system, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was not evaluated in concert with other systems. MCAS has been implicated in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents, which killed 346 people.
The MAX 8, Boeing’s best-selling plane, has been grounded by the FAA since March 13.
The report says, “In the B737 MAX program, the FAA had inadequate awareness of the MCAS function which, coupled with limited involvement, resulted in an inability of the FAA to provide an independent assessment of the adequacy of the Boeing proposed certification activities associated with MCAS.”
However prior reports say that the FAA apparently had received at least 216 reports of these sensors failing or having to be repaired or replaced by airlines since 2004. So, it was known that these sensors monitored by Boeing’s deactivated safety alert feature do fail and, hence, must be monitored.
Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg has apologized on numerous occasions for the 737 crashes and said his team of experts is “working tirelessly in collaboration with the FAA to prevent any more accidents.” However, following the JATR report’s release, Boeing has removed Mr. Muilenberg of his responsibilities as board chair. He’s been kept on as CEO.
Cause for concern
There are several areas outlined in the report that are a cause for concern. One major cause for concern is that the changes that were made to the MCAS during the lengthy certification process had not been adequately updated or reviewed, and the possible impacts the changes would have on flight crews were not identified by Boeing.
Boeing had not included the MCAS information in the training manuals for the plane and the automated control system implicated in the crashes didn’t allow pilots to understand what was happening in a critical situation or that the system required different handling.
Another factor the report brought out was the amount of freedom the FAA gave to Boeing’s designated certification representative. Apparently, they “delegated a high percentage of approvals and findings of compliance” to the representative. It goes without saying that the FAA should have provided stronger oversight and, apparently, they did not.
The report also mentioned the “undue pressure” because of “conflicting priorities” placed on Boeing employees performing the certification processes.
There has been a continual lack of inspections and even conflicts of interest whereby Boeing employees, not the FAA, conducted safety inspections and signoffs just to get the planes out the door. There were numerous incidents of company employees reporting sloppiness and the company ignoring or retaliating against employees that attempted to bring quality issues to Boeing’s leadership.
Money, lobbyists, and free reign
I commented in a prior post that Boeing repeatedly threw large sums of money and lobbyists at Congress, resulting in Congress directing the FAA to make the reviews of airplanes and their certifications for airworthiness “quicker and less costly.” And this obviously gave the FAA license to delegate many of the critical safety inspection functions to Boeing employees.
While the F.A.A.’s administrator, Steve Dickson, said, “We welcome this scrutiny and are confident that our openness to these efforts will further bolster aviation safety worldwide,” and that he would “review every recommendation and take appropriate action,” we need to seriously question the efficacy of the FAA and the governing bodies that allowed these egregious actions to take place.
Since March, the House transportation panel has held three hearings and issued nine records requests “as it continues to conduct a thorough investigation into the FAA’s certification of the 737 MAX,” according to Rep. Rick Larsen, a member of the committee who also chairs its aviation subcommittee.
“This new report confirms our very worst fears about a broken system,” Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, said in an interview. “To put the fox in charge of the henhouse never made any sense, and now we see the deeply tragic consequences.”
Ignored safety proposals
And certainly, more investigation needs to explore Boeing engineer Curtis Ewbank’s internal ethics complaint alleging that company management blocked key safety improvements during the aircraft’s development due to “cost concerns.”
Mr. Ewbank filed his complaint seven weeks after the second fatal crash. The complaint points out specific proposals for 737 safety upgrades which were blocked by management and criticizes the culture at Boeing, questioning whether the company’s safety priorities were compromised by business considerations during the MAX’s development.
It suggests that one of the proposed systems for the MAX could have potentially prevented the fatal crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 last year, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 this year.
U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chair Peter DeFazio said the committee has yet to find Ewbank’s ethics complaint in documents Boeing so far has turned over in response to the panel’s request for internal records six months ago.
“These reports certainly add to my concern that production pressures may have impacted safety on the 737 MAX, which is exactly why it’s so critical we get to the bottom of this … On April 1st we asked Boeing for all complaints regarding the 737 MAX and though we’ve been poring over hundreds of thousands of pages of documents and emails from Boeing and FAA, we were not aware of Mr. Ewbank’s complaint.”
And not to muddy the waters, but in addition to Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 issues, the Federal Aviation Administration has required urgent inspections of certain 737 Next Generation planes — the predecessor to the troubled 737 MAX. Apparently there are cracks in a plane part called the “pickle fork” on jets being overhauled in China. The pickle fork is integral in attaching the wings to the fuselage, or the main body of the plane. To date 686 737 Next planes have been inspected, and more than 5%, or 36 of the planes show signs of cracking.
Considering that a pickle fork is supposed to last the lifetime of a plane, that’s 5% too many.
Mistakes happen. However too many Boeing snafus “just adds to the perception that Boeing’s aircraft development process wasn’t as rigorous as it should have been.” The public, more informed because of social media than ever, are skeptical.
In fact, certain travel sites like Kayak now allow passengers to exclude certain aircraft types from their searches. From United to Southwest Airlines to American, the Boeing MAX sits grounded causing hundreds of flight cancellations. The prolonged grounding “has dented airlines’ revenue and created a headache for planners and travelers alike.”