Lax oversight at FAA led to Boeing crisis
In the days after the first crash of Boeing’s 737 Max, engineers at the Federal Aviation Administration came to a troubling realization: They didn’t fully understand the automated system that helped send the plane into a nose-dive, killing everyone on board.
Engineers at the agency scoured their files for information about the system designed to help avoid stalls. They didn’t find much. Regulators had never independently assessed the risks of the dangerous software known as MCAS when they approved the plane in 2017.
More than a dozen current and former employees at the FAA and Boeing who spoke with The New York Times described a broken regulatory process that effectively neutered the oversight authority of the agency.
The regulator had been passing off routine tasks to manufacturers for years, with the goal of freeing up specialists to focus on the most important safety concerns. But on the Max, the regulator handed nearly complete control to Boeing, leaving some key agency officials in the dark about important systems like MCAS, according to the current and former employees.
While the agency’s flawed oversight of the Boeing 737 Max has attracted much scrutiny since the first crash in October and a second one in March, a Times investigation revealed previously unreported details about weaknesses in the regulatory process that compromised the safety of the plane.
The company performed its own assessments of the system, which were not stress-tested by the regulator. Turnover at the agency left two relatively inexperienced engineers overseeing Boeing’s early work on the system.
The FAA eventually handed over responsibility for approval of MCAS to the manufacturer. After that, Boeing didn’t have to share the details of the system with the two agency engineers.
Late in the development of the Max, Boeing decided to expand the use of MCAS. The new, riskier version relied on a single sensor and could push down the nose of the plane by a much larger amount.
Boeing did not submit a formal review of MCAS after the overhaul. It wasn’t required by FAA rules.
The agency ultimately certified the jet as safe, required little training for pilots and allowed the plane to keep flying until a second deadly Max crash, less than five months after the first.
The FAA and Boeing have defended the plane’s certification, saying they followed proper procedures and adhered to the highest standards.
“The 737 Max certification program involved 110,000 hours of work on the part of FAA personnel, including flying or supporting 297 test flights,” the agency said.
Boeing said that “the 737 Max met the FAA’s stringent standards and requirements as it was certified through the FAA’s processes.”
Boeing needed the approval process on the Max to go swiftly. Months behind its rival Airbus, the company was racing to finish the plane.
The regulator’s handsoff approach was pivotal. At crucial moments in the Max’s development, the agency operated in the background, mainly monitoring Boeing’s progress and checking paperwork. The nation’s largest aerospace manufacturer, Boeing was treated as a client, with FAA officials making decisions based on the company’s deadlines and budget.
During the Max certification, senior FAA leaders sometimes overruled their own staff members’ recommendations after Boeing pushed back.
After the crash of the Lion Air plane in October, FAA engineers were shocked to discover they didn’t have a complete analysis of MCAS. The safety review in their files didn’t mention that the system could aggressively push down the nose of the plane and trigger repeatedly, making it difficult to regain control of the aircraft.
Despite their hazy understanding of the system, FAA officials decided against grounding the 737 Max. Instead, they published a notice reminding pilots of existing emergency procedures.
The notice didn’t describe how MCAS worked. At the last minute, an FAA manager told agency engineers to remove the only mention of the system, according to internal agency documents and two people with knowledge of the matter.
For decades, the FAA relied on engineers inside Boeing to help certify aircraft. But after intense lobbying by industry, the agency adopted rules in 2005 that would give manufacturers like Boeing even more control. By 2018, the FAA was letting the company certify 96% of its own work, according to an agency official.
In the middle of the Max’s development, two of the most seasoned engineers in the FAA’s Boeing office left. The engineers, who had a combined 50 years of experience, grew frustrated with the work, which they saw as mostly paper pushing, according to two people with knowledge of the staff changes.
In their place, the FAA appointed an engineer who had little experience in flight controls, and a new hire who had gotten his master’s degree three years earlier. People who worked with the two engineers said they seemed ill-equipped to identify any problems in a complex system like MCAS.
A Boeing 737 Max at the company’s plant in Renton, Wash., on July 21. After the first fatal crash of a 737 Max, in October 2018, federal regulators realized they didn’t understand the software system that made the plane nosedive.