For the past two days, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg has faced a withering series of questions about his company’s culpability in a pair of crashes of Boeing 737 Max jets that, combined, killed 346 people.
In a report issued earlier this month, a panel of international aviation regulators found that Boeing withheld key information about the company’s 737 Max from pilots and regulators, and the Federal Aviation Administration lacked the expertise to understand an automated flight system implicated in the two deadly crashes of Max jets.
The panel, which included members from U.S. agencies, and aviation regulators from Europe, Canada, China and six other countries, made 12 recommendations for improving the FAA’s certification of new aircraft, including more emphasis on understanding how pilots will handle the increasing amount of automation driving modern planes.
The report, called a joint authorities technical review, focused on FAA approval of a new flight-control system called MCAS that automatically pushed the noses of Max jets down — based on faulty readings from a single sensor — before crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
During the certification process, Boeing changed the design of MCAS, making it more powerful; but key people at the FAA were not always told. The review committee said it believed that if FAA technical staff knew more about how MCAS worked, they likely would have seen the possibility that it could overpower pilots’ efforts to stop the nose-down pitch.
The panel’s chief, former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Christopher Hart said MCAS evolved “from a relatively benign system to a not-so-benign system without adequate knowledge by the FAA.”
“We have made mistakes, and we got some things wrong,” Muilenburg told a Senate committee Tuesday.
Sen. Richard Blemental, D-Connecticut, said Boeing successfully lobbied regulators to keep any explanation of the MCAS system from pilot manuals and training and said that after the crashes the company tried to blame the pilots in the two fatal crashes.
Muilenburg denied that Boeing ever blamed the pilots, referring to his comments last spring and summer in which he said the accidents were caused by a “chain of events,” not a single factor.
Indonesian investigators say Boeing’s design of the MCAS contributed to the crash of a Lion Air Max last October off the coast of Indonesia. Ethiopian authorities are continuing to investigate the second crash some seven months later involving a plane flown by Ethiopian Airlines, which led to a worldwide grounding of the plane last March.
This week’s hearings came as congressional committees were already looking into the Federal Aviation Administration’s use of designated company employees in the certification of parts and systems.
The international panel’s report found signs that Boeing put “undue pressures” on employees who worked on Max certification, a finding the led Blumenthal, an FAA critic, to term the report an indictment of “a failed, broken system of aviation safety scrutiny.”
FAA officials have said that it would require vast new staffing and cost billions for FAA employees to perform all necessary certification work.
While the outcome remains uncertain at this point, Congress is likely to consider changes in how the FAA certifies new planes. The costs of those changes could be substantial, but with lives at stake — often hundreds of lives at a time — we see it as a necessary endeavor.