Just when things started to go right for Boeing, having re-certified its troubled Boeing 737 Max, new allegations have surfaced casting doubt on the process to restore the aircraft to the flight line.
The Verge has reported that Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) worked together to manipulate 737 Max recertification tests following two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, according to a damning new Senate report.
Boeing “inappropriately coached” some FAA test pilots to reach a desired outcome during the recertification tests, and some were even performed on simulators that weren’t equipped to re-create the same conditions as the crashes.
In doing this, the Senate report’s authors say the “FAA and Boeing were attempting to cover up important information that may have contributed to the 737 MAX tragedies,” The Verge reported.
The FAA is also accused of retaliating against whistleblowers, possibly obstructing the Office of the Inspector General’s investigation into the crashes, failing to hold senior managers accountable, and allowing Southwest Airlines to operate improperly certified planes.
The 102-page report, released Friday, was compiled by the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation and is built on information from 50 whistleblowers, FAA staff interviews, and more than 15,000 pages of documents, The Verge reported.
All Max planes were grounded worldwide after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed a total of 346 people in October 2018 and March 2019, Canada’s CBC reported.
Last month, the FAA approved the 737 Max’s return to service, and flights have resumed in Brazil. The first US 737 Max commercial flight with paying passengers is set for Dec. 29.
According to a whistleblower who was an FAA safety inspector, Boeing representatives watched and gave advice to help test pilots in a flight simulator respond to a nose-down pitch of the plane in a few seconds, CBC reported.
The reaction of three flight crews was still slower than Boeing had assumed, according to the report. Each time the plane would have been thrown into a nose-down pitch, although recovery would have been possible, the investigators said.
“Our findings are troubling,” Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), who chairs the committee, said in a statement.
“The report details a number of significant examples of lapses in aviation safety oversight and failed leadership in the FAA. It is clear that the agency requires consistent oversight to ensure their work to protect the flying public is executed fully and correctly.”
The FAA countered that it was an FAA pilot who discovered a separate computer issue in the plane, a flaw that took Boeing additional months to fix.
Investigators also said an FAA division manager was first invited, then excluded from a review of the Max crashes even though his position normally would call for him to participate in the review, CBC reported.
The official said he believes he was excluded to shield the FAA from criticism.
Boeing said Friday it takes “seriously the committee’s findings and will continue to review the report in full. “The FAA said Friday it was “carefully reviewing the document, which the committee acknowledges contains a number of unsubstantiated allegations.”
The agency added that it is “confident that the safety issues that played a role in the tragic [737 Max] accidents involving Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 have been addressed through the design changes required and independently approved by the FAA and its partners.”
The report also noted Southwest Airlines was able to operate more than 150,000 flights carrying 17.2 million passengers on jets without confirmation that required maintenance had been completed.
The Senate report said the Southwest flights “put millions of passengers at potential risk.” Southwest did not immediately comment.
The 737 Max was rushed through development so Boeing could keep pace with rival Airbus, which had surprise-announced a more fuel-efficient plane in 2011. Instead of developing a new plane from the ground up, Boeing modified the 737 NG with bigger, more fuel-efficient engines, The Verge reported.
The placement of those engines made the plane susceptible to stalls in certain takeoff situations, though, so Boeing equipped the plane with a piece of software that would automatically pitch the nose down to prevent this from happening.
Boeing didn’t tell regulators or customers about the software, though, in a bid to cut down on costly flight training. This left the pilots of Lion Air Flight 610 in 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in 2019 fighting, and ultimately losing out to, a piece of software they didn’t know was working against them.
That software, known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was a big focus of the recertification tests following the two crashes, especially in simulators meant to recreate the crash conditions.
The problem, broadly, that the Commerce Committee found was that this testing process was rife with its own problems, The Verge reported.
Some FAA investigators left tests early, while others were performed in simulators that weren’t equipped with the same software that doomed the 737 Max flights, meaning the results were meaningless.
In one particular FAA test performed on the right simulator, a whistleblower says Boeing officials were present and told the test pilots when to hit the switch that killed MCAS, The Verge reported.
When these actions were reported by whistleblowers, they were often ignored or retaliated against, according to the report.