The Boeing Co. 737 fuselage sections are located on the assembly floor at Spirit AeroSystems in Wichita, Kansas.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | fake pictures
Boeing did not submit the certification documents to the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) detailing the changes to a key flight control system in two fatal accidents, a highly anticipated government report seen by Reuters found.
The flight control system, known as MCAS, “was not an area of emphasis” because Boeing presented it to the FAA as a modification of the plane’s existing speed compensation system, with limited range and use, according to the report.
The 52-page report from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General (IG), dated June 29 and due to be released Wednesday, exposed errors made by both the aircraft maker and by the FAA in developing and certifying Boeing’s best-selling aircraft products.
The FAA declined to comment beyond the department’s response attached to the report. The IG did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A Boeing spokesperson said the company had taken steps to improve safety and was committed to transparency. “When the MAX returns to service, it will be one of the most thoroughly analyzed aircraft in history, and we have full confidence in its safety,” he said.
The IG report is the latest of the reports that fail the plane’s approval, while the Justice Department has an ongoing criminal investigation.
The 737 MAX has been grounded from a commercial flight worldwide since March 2019 after two accidents that killed 346 people in Ethiopia and Indonesia over a five-month period.
Boeing’s so-called MCAS loss prevention system has failed in both crashes, when the system repeatedly and forcefully pushed the nose of the plane as pilots struggled to intervene. Crash investigators have identified a cocktail of other factors.
The inspector general’s report details activities from the initial phase of the certification process in January 2012 to the second accident and details the allegations of “undue pressure” by Boeing management on workers handling the safety certification. The IG office will issue recommendations to the FAA later this year, the Transportation Department said in comments on the draft report released June 8.
Regulators in the dark
Boeing kept the FAA in the dark about significant changes to MCAS, according to the report. The FAA then conducted its first detailed overhaul of the system in January 2019, three months after the first accident in Indonesia. The review resulted in documentation that was never finalized, according to the report.
The report noted that after the Indonesian accident, the FAA completed a risk analysis that found that the uncorrected risk for the 737 MAX was 2.68 deaths per 1 million flight hours, exceeding the FAA risk guidelines. 1 fatality per 10 million flight hours.
An analysis by the FAA from December 2018 determined the risk of approximately 15 accidents occurring over the lifetime of the entire 737 MAX fleet if the software repair was not implemented.
Following the blocks, Boeing proposed and FAA accepted a redesign of the MCAS software that would include additional safeguards against inadvertent activation of MCAS.
Boeing agreed to develop the software update by April 12, and operators would have until June 18, 2019 to install the software. While Boeing was working on the proposed software update for MCAS, a second aircraft crashed in March 2019 in Ethiopia.
‘Too deferential for Boeing’
The FAA is currently evaluating MCAS updates during a series of certification test flights this week that could pave the way for the plane’s return nationwide by the end of the year.
“While we have found no evidence of an inappropriately close relationship between the FAA and Boeing to date, some FAA staff expressed concern that FAA executives are overly respectful of Boeing,” the report said.
In response to the report, the Department of Transportation said the FAA certification of the 737 MAX “was hampered by the lack of effective communication” between the agency and the US aircraft maker.
Crucially, that included “incomplete understanding of the scope and possible security impacts” of the changes Boeing made to the plane’s flight control system to give it more power and authority, the agency said.
“The FAA engineers and key certification personnel responsible for approving the level of airline pilot training were unaware of the (MCAS) review,” the report said.