MIAMI – According to an inspector general report, Boeing withheld from Federal Aviation Administration ( FAA) regulators investigating its 737 MAX aircraft the scope and capability of the faulty computer system that ultimately brought down two jets.
The report, obtained by CNN, also faults the FAA for inadequate communication and states that it turned over the overwhelming majority, 87%, of responsibility for certification to Boeing.
The report, which is scheduled to be made public on Wednesday, contains specifics of previously confidential interactions between the agency and manufacturer, and findings on how the process failed.
A Scathing Report Amid MAX Test Flights
The scarring report comes as the FAA conducts test flights this week of the revamped 737 MAX which has been grounded since the second fatal crash in March 2019 for over a year.
The study highlights several instances where Boeing provided incomplete information to regulators about the latest Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, with major consequences.
The FAA says the Boeing described the technology as a tweak to an existing system that would “only activate under certain limited conditions,” thereby leading the FAA to focus its analysis on other aspects of the aircraft.
An Evident Ommission of MCAS Details
According to the CNN story, the report goes on to state that one FAA engineer remembered how the MCAS was “presented briefly with limited details.”
Indeed, when Boeing engineers briefed the agency at a major meeting on differences between the MAX and earlier versions of its 737 aircraft, “there were only 2 lines of text within those nearly 500 slides — covered over a period of two days — that referenced MCAS,” the report said.
One paper explaining the safety of the aircraft did include information about MCAS, but not “an interrelated view of how MCAS interacted with other systems.”
Simultaneously, Boeing made the MCAS system more pungent, allowing it to control the plane to a greater degree and to activate repeatedly.
MCAS Modification Plans Came Too Late
The report emphasizes that some FAA employees — those involved in the aircraft’s test flights — were aware of the changes, and faults the agency for not informing other FAA officials involved in oversight.
Alas, Agency engineers did not conduct a complete analysis of the MCAS system, nor did they grasp how it worked until further aircraft analysis after the first 737 MAX crash in October 2018, the report says.
In light of the incident, Boeing developed a plan to modify the MCAS program by April 2019. But a second MAX crashed about a month before that deadline, and the fleet was eventually grounded around the globe.
The company said in a statement Wednesday morning that it had “cooperated fully and extensively” with the office of the inspector general, and noted that in response to previous investigations related to the MAX, the company made “substantial changes” to both the plane and the corporate structure.
Overall Changes Needed
“We have made robust improvements to the 737 MAX flight control software, including ensuring MCAS cannot be activated based on signals from a single sensor and cannot be activated repeatedly,” the statement said.
“We have dedicated all resources necessary to ensure that the improvements to the 737 MAX are comprehensive and thoroughly tested.”The Department of Transportation’s general counsel wrote in a memo after reviewing the report that it “reveals some strengths in FAA’s aircraft certification process, as well as areas for improvement.”
Changes at the FAA, the memo said, will “ensure integrity and transparency with regard to information sharing.”One of the lawmakers who requested the report, House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, said the report highlights “Boeing’s efforts to conceal critical information from regulators in its rush to get the MAX to market.”
Exccessive Pressure on FAA, Boeing Staff
The study also analyzed the FAA safety evaluations delegation to Boeing, a standard procedure in U.S. aircraft design and production, indicating that 42 FAA employees supervise 1,500 Boeing employees with certification authority.
Previously released internal Boeing documents showed Boeing staff, including a key official in the certification campaign, mocking the organization and slamming the plane design.
The paper also states that Boeing and the FAA were investigating concerns about excessive pressure on Boeing workers who had the authority of the FAA to sign off on aircraft aspects. It said future reports would be forthcoming on the delegation process.
Amending the Delegation Process
Currently, Congress is working in this regard on legislation to amend the delegation process.
However, FAA administrator Steven Dickson recently said that he does not agree that one component of this bipartisan initiative is necessary: that the FAA, rather than manufacturers such as Boeing, will decide which employees are placed in the delegation authority pipeline.
As the aircraft’s re-certification process is underway, Boeing now supports simulator training for all 737 MAX pilots, including those who flew earlier versions of the 737 — something pilots union officials said ought to have been required first.
As of last week, the FAA said it had not yet determined pilot training standards.
Incomplete MAX Training
The company developed the 737 Max with the goal of avoiding simulator training, which would add to the cost for airlines purchasing the aircraft.
But even if simulator training had been planned before the initial 737 MAX launch, pilots would still have been in the dark about the MCAS program because notes on MCAS were omitted from the training materials, the study states.
Thus, any simulator training, although not suggested, would “probably not have included MCAS,” says the report.