In a report issued late last week, 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 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 that killed 346 people.
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.” While Hart faulted poor communication he said there was no indication of intentional wrongdoing.
Boeing’s 737 Max has been grounded since March. The five-month international review was separate from the FAA’s consideration of whether to recertify the plane once Boeing finishes updates to software and computers on the plane. Boeing hopes to win FAA approval before the end of the year.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said that the agency would review all recommendations from the panel and take appropriate action. Hart said the U.S. aviation-safety system “has worked very well for decades,” noting there has been just one accident-related death on a U.S. airliner in the past 10 years, “but this is a system that has room for improvement.”
Congressional committees are already looking into the FAA’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 an FAA critic, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., to term the report an indictment of “a failed, broken system of aviation safety scrutiny.”
FAA officials said that it would require vast new staffing and cost billions for FAA employees to perform all necessary certification work.
The report could also prompt a re-examination of automation, which experts say has led to erosion of flying skills among many pilots.
“As automation becomes more and more complex, pilots are less likely to fully understand it and more likely to have problems,” Hart said.
Pilot unions, which criticized Boeing for not telling them about MCAS until after the first crash, praised the report. Jon Weaks, president of the pilot union at Southwest Airlines, said in a statement that the issues raised by the task force echo complaints by his union.
“As pilots, we have to be able to trust that Boeing will provide all the information we need to safely operate our aircraft,” Weaks said. “In the case of the 737 Max, that absolutely did not happen.”
Congress, through its oversight and funding of the FAA, should ensure that pilots are provided the training to deal with our growing reliance on technology.