It looks like both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration may have to answer for why the 737 Max 8 was allowed to fly even ahead of the plane’s two deadly crashes in the last six months.
The Seattle Times reported Sunday that U.S. flight officials punted oversight of critical safety assessments to the company itself during the certification process, resulting in serious flaws, due to a lack of funding and resources to carry out every technical assessment. FAA engineers and experts speaking anonymously told the Seattle Times the certification process was rushed, while some tasks that could’ve been managed by the FAA engineers were delegated to Boeing. The FAA told the Seattle Times it followed the regular certification process but couldn’t comment on “detailed inquiries.”
Separately, the U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general wants to know how the plane was developed, while a D.C.-based grand jury subpoenaed at least one person involved in the plane’s development earlier this month, according to the Wall Street Journal.
These reports come after the March 10 crash of a 737 Max 8 flown by Ethiopian Airlines shortly after it took off from Addis Ababa. The crash killed 157 people. About six months earlier, Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610 crashed in similar circumstances, killing 189 people. In both incidents, pilots reported flight control issues, leading to concerns surrounding the automated stall-prevention system, which was newly installed in this 737 Max model. Muse Yiheyis, a spokesman for the Ethiopian Transport Ministry, told Reuters the carrier has recovered black box data that shows similarities between the two crashes.
When the Ethiopian plane crashed, there were over 300 Max 8 airplanes in operation and 5,000 more on order, according to Reuters. Boeing is a top U.S. manufacturer, employing more than 150,000 people. The U.S. grounded the aircraft on Wednesday — following dozens of other countries’ decision to do so — but reports indicate safety concerns were flagged at least several months earlier.
The transportation department inspector general’s inquiry into how the plane was certified began after the Lion Air crash, according to the Journal, which cited unnamed sources. The inquiry reportedly concerns whether the FAA used proper design standards and analysis in approving the 737 Max 8’s technology.
It’s unclear whether the grand jury subpoena was related to that investigation or a separate matter. It was reportedly filed a day after the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
The Wall Street Journal reported in November that Boeing didn’t warn pilots about the potential dangers of an automated system that prevents the model’s engines from tipping the plane’s nose too high. The automated system, which is meant to counteract the model’s heavier engines, under unusual circumstances can push the plane's nose down suddenly and strongly.
The Seattle Times investigation interviewed unnamed engineers who said that amid the plane’s certification process, Boeing understated the strength of that software in a System Safety Analysis. The newspaper alerted Boeing to its findings ahead of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, and the planemaker told the Seattle Times there were “significant mischaracterizations” in the engineers’ comments.
Pilots received approximately 56 minutes of video training on the differences between the new planes and the older Boeing 737 models.
In a statement to CBS News, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the company is working on a software update to the automated system and improving its pilot training program. The FAA has said the planes can’t fly until the software fix is made.
Cover: An American Airlines Group Inc. Boeing Corp. 737 Max 8 aircraft approaches during landing at Miami International Airport (MIA) in Miami, Florida, U.S., on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. Photographer: Scott McIntyre/Bloomberg via Getty Images