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U.S. House Committee Releases Report on Boeing's 737 MAX

The U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee determined that two Boeing 737 Max plane crashes were the “horrific” result of flawed technical assumptions, “a lack of transparency” from the company’s leadership, and insufficient oversight by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The committee released the report on 16 September, criticizing both Boeing and the FAA. Prepared by the majority, the 238-page report was the product of an 18-month long investigation that ultimately determined five areas contributed to issues with the 737 Max that ultimately resulted in two crashes that killed 346 people.

The five themes included:

  1. Production pressures. Boeing’s competition with European aerospace company Airbus and its A320neo aircraft led to Boeing engaging in cost-cutting and methods that would avoid slowing production. “The committee’s investigation has identified several instances where the desire to meet these goals and expectations jeopardized the safety of the flying public,” the report said.
  2. Faulty design and performance assumptions. Fundamental errors from assumptions about the plane’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) proved deadly as the software was partly responsible for pushing the airplanes into nosedives.
  3. Culture of concealment. “In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and 737 MAX pilots,” the authors wrote in the report. For instance, Boeing failed to inform pilots about the existence of the MCAS and concealed from the FAA internal test data where a test pilot found an MCAS to be “catastrophic.” The committee report criticized the company on this point, describing the behavior as inconceivable and inexcusable. “It also argues strongly for a disclosure requirement,” the report said. “Federal guidelines assume pilots will respond to this condition within four seconds.”
  4. Conflicted representation. Additionally, the FAA’s oversight of Boeing was determined a conflict of interest, finding several instances where the agency granted Boeing employees oversight authority, which in turn left the FAA ignorant of “important information…that could have enhanced the safety of the 737 MAX aircraft.”
  5. Boeing’s influence over the FAA oversight structure. The committee pointed to various documented instances where agency management sided with a Boeing decision or recommendation, overruling the findings of an FAA technical or safety expert. “These incidents have had a detrimental impact on the morale of FAA’s technical and subject matter experts that compromises the integrity and independence of the FAA’s oversight abilities and the safety of airline passengers,” the report said.

“For two brand-new airplanes, of a brand-new derivative model, to crash within five months of each other was extraordinary given significant advances in aviation safety over the last two decades,” the report said. “While certain facts and circumstances surrounding the accidents differed, a common component in both the accident airplanes was the new flight control feature: MCAS.”

The design of the 737 MAX places the engines higher than on its previous model (the 737 NG), and because the engines were also larger, the role of the MCAS was, in a nutshell, to push the plane’s nose down to compensate, stabilizing the plane during certain conditions. In both the Lion Air crash in October 2018 and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019, faulty angle-of-attack (AOA) sensors triggered the MCAS, which in turn activated the plane’s horizontal stabilizer to push the nose down while pilots attempted to right the airplane.

“What’s particularly infuriating is how Boeing and FAA both gambled with public safety in the critical time period between the two crashes,” said Committee Chair U.S. Representative Peter DeFazio (D-OR) said in a press release.

The FAA released a statement in response to the report, insisting the agency is committed to aviation safety.

“We are already undertaking important initiatives based on what we have learned from our own internal reviews as well as independent reviews of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents," the statement said. "These initiatives are focused on advancing overall aviation safety by improving our organization, processes, and culture."

The Washington Post reported that DeFazio is working to secure bipartisan support to address the oversight issue.

The FAA proposed at the beginning of August a new rulemaking for the 737 MAX, which would get Boeing closer to getting these planes back in the air.

According to The New York Times, once the FAA signs off on the 737 MAX, it “could lead aviation authorities elsewhere to follow suit and allow the plane to fly again as soon as this winter.”