By Alan Levin and Ryan Beene / Bloomberg
The House committee investigating the Boeing 737 Max blasted U.S. regulators and the Boeing for a series of design and safety blunders involving the jet that’s been grounded for almost a year after two fatal crashes.
The 737 Max’s design and development “was marred by technical design failures, lack of transparency with both regulators and customers, and efforts to obfuscate information about the operation of the aircraft,” the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said Friday in a summary of preliminary findings from its nearly yearlong probe of the jet.
Investigators said the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification of the plane was “grossly insufficient” and called for reforms to the oversight of new plane designs that would put more emphasis on safety-critical designs and give the agency more direct responsibility.
“Developing a transport category commercial aircraft that is compliant with FAA regulations but fundamentally flawed and unsafe highlights an aviation oversight system in desperate need of repair,” the committee wrote.
The release, while preliminary, marks the first time the House panel has summarized what it has found after almost one year of hearings, interviews with officials, and a review of about 600,000 pages of documents.
“Our committee has been able to bring into focus the multiple factors that allowed an unairworthy airplane to be put into service, leading to the tragic and avoidable deaths of 346 people,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat and chairman of the committee, said in a statement.
The 737 Max crashes prompted the longest grounding of a jetliner in decades, tarnished the aircraft manufacturing giant’s image, and led to financial stress at airlines around the world stuck with hundreds of planes that can’t currently fly.
Boeing shares were little changed at $260 at 1:25 p.m. in New York.
Boeing “cooperated extensively” with the committee for the past year and is reviewing the report, the company said in a statement.
“As the March 10 anniversary of the ET302 accident approaches, our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the families that lost loved ones in these accidents,” Boeing said.
The FAA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
The majority of findings in the report have been released previously at the committee’s meetings, in documents it has made public, or by other panels that have reviewed the plane.
They cite now well-known failures to adequately assess in development how pilots would react when a malfunction started repeatedly driving down the plane’s nose, particularly after a system on the plane was made more expansive, and pressures on Boeing to speed work on the plane.
But the House report was accompanied by hundreds of documents that hadn’t been revealed before. Some of them shed new light on the controversy over the Max.
In January 2019 — after a Lion Air 737 Max had crashed but before the March 2019 Ethiopian Airlines accident — Boeing wrote to the FAA saying it continued to believe that the safety system that led to the crashes didn’t need to be disclosed to pilots in flight manuals.
However, because the feature — Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS — was known to have been involved in the Lion Air crash, airline customers were asking for additional information about it. Bowing to the carriers, Boeing wrote that it would include the lowest level of training on MCAS.
The FAA wrote back to Boeing on March 1, just 9 days before the second accident, to say that the company’s proposal “may not meet” the agency’s requirements and it would conduct additional testing.
New details also emerged about Boeing’s decision to ship the planes without a working cockpit alert to monitor a sensor critical to the crashes. The so-called angle-of-attack sensor alert didn’t work on 80% of Max jets and its absence was cited as a factor in the Lion Air crash by Indonesian investigators.
Boeing had prepared a “Fleet Team Digest” to inform its customers about the faulty alert, the report said, suggesting some in the company thought it should be disclosed. But the company never sent it, according to the committee.
In addition, Boeing in 2012 slashed thousands of work-hours spent on elements of the 737 Max program as a cost-cutting move, the committee said.