Boeing deflected FAA attention from 737 MAX MCAS system

Boeing did not provide the Federal Aviation Administration with documents regarding the specifications of the MCAS system during the development of the 737 MAX, the U.S. Department of Transportation found out. The MCAS was pinned as the main cause for the two crashes that killed 346 people.

The investigation of the Inspector General of the Department of Transportation (DOT) found that the manufacturer did not produce the certification documents of the MCAS system. Instead, it was presented as a simple update of the already existing speed trim system that would not activate often “and therefore did not receive a more detailed review or discussion between FAA engineers and Boeing.” 

The lack of emphasis led the FAA to focus on other areas judged more critical, such as the larger engines or changes in the landing gears. Only two months after the crash of the Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX in October 2018 did the authority start reviewing the MCAS system in detail, says the report.

At the time, the FAA had estimated that throughout its service life, the MCAS could lead to up to 15 crashes of the Boeing 737 MAX, potentially leading to the death of 2,900 people. Yet the authority did not take any action, and chose not to ground the fleet, as it emerged in a Congress hearing of Steve Dickson, the FAA’s Administrator, in December 2019

It also said that several instances of “undue pressure” on Organization Designation Authorization employees (Boeing engineers that were part of the aircraft’s certification) were identified by both the FAA and the manufacturer. 

Boeing launched an internal survey in 2016 in which 40% of the company’s employees reported having faced undue pressure. The DOT defines the latter term as “conflicting non-ODA duties or interference from other company or organizational elements”. 

Additionally, a number of Boeing employees complained about high workloads and a sentiment of confusion regarding their tasks, partly due to their “dual roles” in which they would work on a design and approve it themselves.

The DOT Inspector General concludes by sharing its concerns regarding the FAA’s “certification process, including its oversight of the ODA program” as well as the “processes for determining certification basis, assessing pilot training needs, and conducting risk analyses.”

The audit published on July 1, 2020, was requested by the U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao in March 2019, to verify the procedure for certification of the Boeing 737 MAX by the Federal Aviation Authority and “assist the FAA in ensuring that its safety procedures are implemented effectively”.

After 14 months of global grounding, Boeing started the recertification flights of the 737 MAX on June 30, 2020, under the supervision of the FAA.


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