18 months after Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 plummeted out of the sky just minutes after takeoff last March, Congressional investigators have finally released a comprehensive report outlining the many mistakes made both by Boeing and the FAA during the certification process.
In the months that have passed, investigators have kept the pressure on Boeing (and its share price) with a steady stream of leaks. We’ve already seen emails showing Boeing engineers criticizing the 737 MAX 8 design time in some of the harshest terms imaginable (at one point, one irate engineer complained that “the plane was designed by clowns, who were supervised by monkeys”.
But the 238-page report, released Wednesday morning by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and its subcommittee on Aviation, breaks it down into five specific broad problems that allegedly led to the deadly accidents, which prompted regulators around the world to ground plane back in March 2019, even after the FAA initially tried to reassure the world that there was ‘nothing to see here’.
Below is a summary provided by the committee.
- Production pressures that jeopardized the safety of the flying public. There was tremendous financial pressure on Boeing and the 737 MAX program to compete with Airbus’ new A320neo aircraft. Among other things, this pressure resulted in extensive efforts to cut costs, maintain the 737 MAX program schedule, and avoid slowing the 737 MAX production line.
- Faulty Design and Performance Assumptions. Boeing made fundamentally faulty assumptions about critical technologies on the 737 MAX, most notably with MCAS, the software designed to automatically push the airplane’s nose down in certain conditions. Boeing also expected that pilots, who were largely unaware that MCAS existed, would be able to mitigate any potential malfunction.
- Culture of Concealment. Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and 737 MAX pilots, including internal test data that revealed it took a Boeing test pilot more than 10 seconds to diagnose and respond to uncommanded MCAS activation in a flight simulator, a condition the pilot described as “catastrophic.” Federal guidelines assume pilots will respond to this condition within four seconds.
- Conflicted Representation. The FAA’s current oversight structure with respect to Boeing creates inherent conflicts of interest that have jeopardized the safety of the flying public. The report documents multiple instances in which Boeing employees who have been authorized to perform work on behalf of the FAA failed to alert the FAA to potential safety and/or certification issues.
- Boeing’s Influence Over the FAA’s Oversight Structure. Multiple career FAA officials have documented examples where FAA management overruled a determination of the FAA’s own technical experts at the behest of Boeing. These examples are consistent with results of a recent draft FAA employee “safety culture” survey that showed many FAA employees believed its senior leaders are more concerned with helping industry achieve its goals and are not held accountable for safety-related decisions.