Business & Tech

Boeing withheld data on system linked to crashes, report says

Boeing’s best-selling 737 Max has been grounded since March 2019 after the second of two crashes that killed a total of 346 people.
Elaine Thompson/Associated Press
Boeing’s best-selling 737 Max has been grounded since March 2019 after the second of two crashes that killed a total of 346 people.

Boeing Co. provided only “limited information” on the flight-control software later implicated in two fatal crashes on the 737 Max as it was being approved by federal regulators, a government watchdog report has found.

The Transportation Department’s Inspector General concluded that Boeing didn’t fully communicate to Federal Aviation Administration officials changes to a system that automatically pushed down the jet’s nose. That led the regulator to focus on other issues in its review of the plane.

The highly anticipated report, dated June 29 and released Wednesday morning, paints a critical picture of Boeing. It was reviewed by Bloomberg News before its release.

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Boeing’s best-selling jet has been grounded since March 2019 after the second of two crashes that killed a total of 346 people. While some of the details released by the inspector general have been contained in other investigative reports or news articles, the latest report contains the most extensive timeline of the plane’s approval to date.

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Boeing, in a statement, said it has cooperated with the investigation and made “robust improvements” to the flight-control system. “We are committed to transparency with the FAA during all aspects of the airplane certification process, and have made significant changes to improve our support to that regulatory process,” the company said.

Boeing stock was down 1.63 percent Wednesday to $180.32, as broad US stock gauges rose. The stock had tumbled 44 percent this year through Tuesday, the steepest decline on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Two US lawmakers with responsibility for overseeing the aviation industry said they’d use the report to craft legislation to prevent such missteps in the future.

“The more scrutiny we put on Boeing and the FAA, and the more we dig into why and how the system failed so horribly and led to the deaths of 346 innocent people, the better chance we have of fixing the system to ensure no family has to endure this nightmare again,” Representative Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who is chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said in a release.

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DeFazio was joined by Representative Rick Larsen, a Washington Democrat who is chairman of the panel’s aviation subcommittee.

In a response included in the report, the FAA acknowledged that its certification of the jet was hampered by a lack of effective communication with Boeing and within the agency. This led to “an incomplete understanding of the scope and potential safety impacts” of the changes to the system that helped lead to the crashes.

The report revolves around the approvals for the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. It was added to the plane to nudge the nose down in certain high-risk conditions so that the aircraft complied with federal regulations.

However, in both crashes — one off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018 and the second near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in March 2019 — a malfunction caused it to repeatedly attempt to dive the planes. Pilots in both cases lost control. The Max has been grounded globally since days after the Ethiopian crash.

FAA engineers responsible for approving pilot-training requirements were unaware of revisions to MCAS that occurred during the design, the agency said. “FAA’s certification process relies on receiving complete, candid information from manufacturers,” it said.

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The agency is revising its oversight of the program that permitted designated employees of a manufacturer to perform certification work and will release details in coming months.

“This and other reviews, both completed and ongoing, will inform important reforms of FAA’s aircraft certification process,” the FAA response said.

The FAA is conducting test flights for re-certification of the plane this week. MCAS was redesigned so that it won’t operate repeatedly and the post-crash reviews prompted several other revisions, including an extensive change to the plane’s flight-control computer.

Daniel Putit, managing director of Lion Air Group, operator of the 737 Max involved in the first crash, declined to comment on the inspector general’s report. He said the airline, one of the biggest customers for the Max, will make a decision on its future at the carrier “only after the full re-certification process from regulators and the return-to-service program provided by Boeing.”

A spokesman for Ethiopian said he hadn’t seen the report and couldn’t comment. The company has said it will be last carrier to fly the Max after it resumes service.