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Boeing MAX crashes ‘horrific’ result of lapses by company, regulator

A scathing congressional report blamed two deadly Boeing 737 MAX crashes on the plane maker and regulators at the Federal Aviation Administraiton - Jim WATSON / ©AFP
A scathing congressional report blamed two deadly Boeing 737 MAX crashes on the plane maker and regulators at the Federal Aviation Administraiton - Jim WATSON / ©AFP

(AFP)

Congressional investigators blamed two deadly Boeing 737 MAX crashes on “repeated and serious failures” by Boeing and air safety regulators, according to a report released Wednesday that adds scrutiny to the still-grounded jet.

“The MAX crashes were not the result of a singular failure, technical mistake or mismanaged event,” said the report, which blasted both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration. 

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“They were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”

The 239-page report released by congressional Democrats is the culmination of an 18-month probe by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee into crashes of Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines planes that together claimed 346 lives.

The latest in a series of withering reviews of the crashes, the document adds to scrutiny of both Boeing and the FAA as the agency manages the process of requiring upgrades to the plane before it is cleared to fly again. The MAX has been grounded since March 2019.

The report flagged numerous failings, including pressure within Boeing to rush the MAX out in order to compete with an Airbus plane, a “culture of concealment” in which the plane maker withheld key information from regulators, and undue influence by the company on Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) higher-ups, which marred oversight.

Much of the analysis centers on the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an anti-stall system that has been seen as a central factor in both crashes because it activated improperly and repeatedly pointed the jets downward, preventing pilots from regaining control of the planes.

The system suffered from “faulty design” in activating based on one sensor, the report said. Boeing also downplayed the importance of the system by failing to classify MCAS as a “safety-critical” mechanism that would have triggered tighter oversight.

The Chicago-based company also concealed crucial information about the system, not even alerting pilots to its existence, the report said.

“Our report lays out disturbing revelations about how Boeing — under pressure to compete with Airbus and deliver profits for Wall Street — escaped scrutiny from the FAA, withheld critical information from pilots and ultimately put planes into service that killed 346 innocent people,” said committee chairman Peter DeFazio, a Democratic representative from Oregon. 

“What’s particularly infuriating is how Boeing and FAA both gambled with public safety in the critical time period between the two crashes.”

– MAX still grounded –

DeFazio has chaired a series of hearings on the MAX, including one last October with former Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg, who was ousted two months after the appearance and replaced by David Calhoun.

Boeing said it has upgraded its processes in the wake of the crashes, setting up a new safety organization and restructuring its engineering operations to elevate concerns about safety to senior management.

“Multiple committees, experts and governmental authorities have examined issues related to the MAX, and we have incorporated many of their recommendations, as well as the results of our own internal reviews, into the 737 MAX and the overall airplane design process,” Boeing said. 

“Once the FAA and other regulators have determined the MAX can safely return to service, it will be one of the most thoroughly scrutinized aircraft in history and we have full confidence in its safety.”

The grounding of the MAX has dented Boeing’s financial performance, which has weakened further in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing downturn in commercial air travel. Boeing said last month it planned a second round of job cuts on top of a 10 percent staff downsizing announced earlier this year.

An FAA spokesman said the agency “is committed to continually advancing aviation safety and looks forward to working with the Committee to implement improvements identified in its report.”

The spokesman added that “the FAA continues to follow a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline, for returning the aircraft to service.”

Shares of Boeing edged up 0.2 percent to $163.85 in early trading.

John BIERS

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