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Regulators were in the dark on Boeing 737 Max design changes, experts find

Grounded Boeing 737 Max planes
Boeing 737 Max airplanes sit, grounded, near Boeing Field in Seattle in July.
(Stephen Brashear / Getty Images)

U.S. aviation regulators assessing Boeing Co.’s 737 Max sometimes didn’t follow their own rules, used out-of-date procedures and lacked the resources and expertise to fully vet the design changes implicated in two fatal crashes, a review panel composed of global aviation experts has concluded.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which approved the design of the jet in 2017, dropped the ball on many fronts, the Joint Authorities Technical Review found. A 69-page summary of the findings also said the panel found evidence that Boeing exerted “undue pressures” on some of its employees who had FAA authority to approve design changes.

The conclusions released Friday are the most sweeping to date to examine how the bestselling Boeing jet, which has been grounded for almost seven months, received approval for what is now seen as a flawed design. Last month, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board issued recommendations calling for better flight testing for such systems.

There were “an inadequate number of FAA specialists” assigned to the 737 Max’s new design and they “had inadequate awareness” of the system implicated in the two crashes, the report released Friday said. Some regulations and policies “were not applied” by the agency as it oversaw design changes on the plane “in a way that failed to achieve the full safety benefit,” the report said.

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Boeing spokesman Chaz Bickers said safety is “a core value for everyone at Boeing” and that the company is “committed to working with the FAA in reviewing the recommendations and helping to continuously improve the process and approach used to validate and certify airplanes.”

Later on Friday, Boeing stripped Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg of his chairman title, saying that separating the positions of CEO and chairman would enable Muilenburg to focus full time on running the company and sharpen its focus on “product and services safety.” The board elected David Calhoun, who previously served as an independent lead director, to serve as non-executive chairman. Muilenburg will continue as CEO and president.

The review process was established within weeks of the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max near Addis Ababa that killed all 157 people aboard and prompted the worldwide grounding of the jet days later. A Lion Air 737 Max went down off the coast of Indonesia on Oct. 29, 2018, under similar circumstances, killing all 189 people aboard.

As the plane feature known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — or MCAS — was given more authority during the design of the plane, “the design assumptions were not adequately reviewed, updated, or validated; possible flight deck effects were not evaluated” and safety assessments didn’t keep pace, the review summary said.

FAA response

FAA Administrator Steven Dickson said in a statement that he will review the recommendations and “take appropriate action.”

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“Today’s unprecedented U.S. safety record was built on the willingness of aviation professionals to embrace hard lessons and to seek continuous improvement,” Dickson said in the statement. “We welcome this scrutiny and are confident that our openness to these efforts will further bolster aviation safety worldwide. The accidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia are a somber reminder that the FAA and our international regulatory partners must strive to constantly strengthen aviation safety.”

Before the report’s release, both the FAA and Boeing had already begun taking steps that were similar to the recommendations. For example, that FAA has insisted that the plane be tested by panels of airline pilots instead of relying only on test pilots.

The panel’s findings paint a picture of an agency that was overwhelmed by the complexity of the new jet’s design, lacking in resources and unaware of the broader safety implications of changes.

However, the findings were limited to observations and recommendations and didn’t detail the decision-making to approve the plane. Because it did not require consensus of all its members, it’s impossible to know if some of the conclusions were by a minority of participants.

The panel was made up of experts from FAA, NASA and nine other regulatory agencies from around the world. Participants included the European Aviation Safety Agency as well as representatives from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates. Its chairman is Christopher Hart, the former chairman of the NTSB.

It was chartered to review how MCAS — the flight-control feature on the 737 Max linked to the two fatal crashes — was approved. It did not examine Boeing’s ongoing work with the FAA to redesign the grounded plane and return it to service.

MCAS was added to Boeing’s Max family of planes to ensure that they met FAA rules for safe handling as the aircraft approached aerodynamic stalls. If the plane was pointed too high, it was programmed to automatically lower the nose. In the crashes, malfunctions caused the feature to activate and repeatedly try to make the plane dive. The failure also led to chaotic cockpit alarms, and both sets of pilots failed to follow Boeing’s procedure to recover and eventually lost control.

Recommendations

In a series of recommendations, the panel urged the FAA to update its regulations, enhance its engineering expertise and to conduct more sweeping safety assessments that examine unintended consequences of high-technology designs.

Like the NTSB’s recommendations last month, the review panel focused on how designs affect the humans — in this case, pilots. The complex emergencies in the two accidents and the high pilot workloads “may not have been anticipated in the certification process,” it said. It called on the FAA to better integrate how the agency’s test pilots assess new designs.

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The panel also addressed a concern several pilots unions have raised since the crashes: the lack of reference to MCAS in the 737’s flight manuals.

Boeing’s Aircraft Flight Manual didn’t include some “non-normal” and emergency procedures “as required by regulations,” the JATR said.

Also, the way in which Boeing withheld information from some of its manuals meant an FAA panel of pilot experts “was not fully aware of the MCAS function and was not in a position to adequately assess training needs,” it said.

‘Undue pressure’

Much of the Max’s design was approved by Boeing engineers who were in effect deputized to act on behalf of the FAA. Congress has ordered the agency to expand such programs in recent years, and other regulators around the world use similar processes, in part because aircraft manufacturers have broader expertise.

The panel recommended that the FAA review its staffing levels to ensure it can adequately oversee these deputized workers, known as designees. The Boeing organization that conducts such work has about 1,500 people, while the FAA team overseeing their work has 45. Of that FAA group, only 24 are engineers.

“There are signs of undue pressure” on Boeing employees doing this work, the report said, “which may be attributed to conflicting priorities and an environment that does not support FAA requirements.”

The report did not provide details on what those pressures were or whether they specifically affected the MCAS design.


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