FAA chief Stephen Dickson defended the safety record of US aviation, saying "what we have done in the past and what we are doing now will not be good enough in the future." Credit: Bill Clark, Roll Call.

Did the FAA needlessly send 189 people to their deaths, in the Java Sea? It is a dire question, but one that needs to be asked, following today’s hearings in Washington.

Analysis by the Federal Aviation Administration after the first crash of a Boeing 737 MAX jet in October 2018 showed that the flawed flight-control system would likely lead to one fatal incident every two to three years, but the agency allowed the planes to carry on flying anyway.

The FAA’s analysis was disclosed Wednesday during a hearing of the House Transportation Committee, which is investigating the agency’s oversight of Boeing and the MAX, the UK’s Daily Mail reported.

“The FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public and let the MAX continue to fly until Boeing could overhaul its MCAS software,” said Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the committee.

The FAA estimate covered the lifespan of the MAX and assumed the fleet would eventually grow to 4,800 planes.

The analysis predicted that as many as 15 catastrophic accidents could occur over the 30 to 45-year life span of the MAX fleet, unless fixes were made to the automated flight-control system, the report said.

That equates to at least one fatal crash about every two or three years.

After the completion of a risk assessment following the first crash, when a Lion Air MAX plunged into the sea off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018, FAA leaders decided to allow the MAX to carry on in service.

That decision ultimately fell apart within a matter of months when the second fatal crash occurred. On March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed near the town of Bishoftu, six minutes after takeoff.

Fewer than 400 MAX planes were flying before they were grounded in March, after the second crash.

The head of the FAA said his agency controls the process of approving the return to service of the troubled plane and won’t delegate any of that authority to Boeing, the report said.

FAA chief Stephen Dickson defended the safety record of US aviation, saying “what we have done in the past and what we are doing now will not be good enough in the future.”

A retired Boeing production manager told the lawmakers about :alarming” conditions at Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton, Washington, where two MAX planes that crashed were built.

The manager, Edward Pierson, said the assembly line fell far behind schedule by mid-2018 because of cascading problems that began with late delivery of key parts.

Yet Boeing went ahead with its plan to boost production from 47 to 52 planes a month.

“By June 2018, I had grown gravely concerned that Boeing was prioritizing production speed over quality and safety,” Pierson said in prepared remarks.

“I witnessed a factory in chaos and reported serious concerns about production quality to senior Boeing leadership months before the first crash’”and again before the second crash.

No action was taken about his concerns, and executives didn’t discuss the problems in financial reports, Pierson said.

DeFazio praised Dickson’s recent comments but was harshly critical of the agency and Boeing, the report said.

The FAA “failed to do its job. It failed to provide the regulatory oversight necessary to ensure the safety of the flying public,” DeFazio said.

Published reports indicate that FAA officials knew very little about a flight-control system called MCAS that was implicated in the October 2018 crash of a MAX off the coast of Indonesia and the March 2019 crash of another MAX in Ethiopia.

In both crashes, investigators say, a faulty sensor caused MCAS to push the nose of the plane down and pilots were unable to regain control. In all, 346 people died.

Regulators around the world grounded the plane after the second crash.

Federal officials said earlier this week that the FAA is not expected to authorize the plane to fly until January at the earliest, citing significant work still to be done.

Some US officials think it may not be until at least February that Dickson gives the green light.

Dickson has repeatedly said he has no timetable for approval. He said the process for approving the MAX’s return to the skies still has 10 or 11 milestones left to complete, including a certification flight and a public comment period.

“I’ve made it very clear Boeing’s plan is not the FAA’s plan.” He added that “we’re going to keep our heads down and support the team in getting this report done right.”

Once the FAA ungrounds the plane and approves training changes, it will still take US airlines 30 days or more to resume flights.

The three US carriers that operate the 737 MAX — Southwest Airlines, American Airlines Group and United Airlines — are scheduling flights without use of the aircraft until early March 2020, nearly a year since the plane was grounded after crashes killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Boeing must still conduct a certification test flight and there are a number of other steps, including technical reviews, that must be completed before the FAA will allow flights to resume.

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