A report released this month by the Department of Transportation Office of Inspector General (OIG) found that Boeing withheld documentation from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) detailing how the planemaker changed the MCAS, making it more powerful after the agency’s initial review of the revamped 737 and its latest iteration – the MAX.
The MCAS, or flight control system, was added to help counter design defects that caused the MAX’s nose to continue to pitch higher and higher, which can lead to stalling and eventually a crash. The MCAS was at the center of the aircraft’s two deadly crashes that claimed 346 lives. Inaccurate readings from the aircraft’s only sensor improperly activated the MCAS, setting in motion a series of events that led to both tragedies.
“The MCAS itself is defective and this alone should have prevented the MAX from being cleared for passenger service if the FAA had been more actively involved in certifying the plane,” said Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews, who has been actively involved in the investigation of the Ethiopian Airlines crash and represents families of victims killed in the flight 302 crash. “While Boeing provided incomplete information to the FAA, ultimately the hands-off, self-certifying approval process failed our clients’ loved ones and all others who perished in the two tragedies.”
According to the OIG report, “Boeing did not submit certification documents to the FAA detailing the change.” It explains that while the agency’s flight test personnel were aware of the change, other key certification engineers and personnel were not aware of the change.
It has previously been reported that the manufacturer increased the MCAS power following the FAA’s initial review of the system, increasing it by as much as four times the strength of the version reviewed by the agency. While the FAA was aware that the MCAS had been modified, it wasn’t adequately informed of the changes by Boeing. In fact, as the OIG report highlights, Boeing underplayed the significance of the changes. The FAA then failed to conduct a detailed review of the MCAS until three months after the first deadly crash, which involved Lion Air flight 610 off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018. The OIG report noted that documentation of the long-overdue review was never completed.
Federal investigators also learned that the FAA analyzed the 737 MAX’s safety risk. The review showed the risk exceeded its own guidelines of one fatality per 10 million flight hours. The risk was more than double the guidelines at 2.68 per 10 million flight hours, yet the agency did not ground the plane until after the second fatal crash. This one involved Ethiopian Airlines flight 302.
Several reports have announced similar findings – that Boeing, the FAA and the certification process all failed to keep the traveling public safe. Other investigations, including a Department of Justice criminal probe, are ongoing.
Since the MAX was grounded worldwide in March 2019 Boeing has repeatedly announced dates for returning the aircraft to passenger service. The leading U.S. planemaker had to walk back those announcements each time after more problems were discovered with the MAX. However, last month, the FAA conducted test flights for the MAX, a step that puts the aircraft closer to returning to passenger service. The milestone in the re-certification of the updated MAX came just weeks after the agency announced it would not overhaul its approval process that initially placed the deadly aircraft in passenger service.
Mike handles all types of aviation litigation for the firm, involving both civilian and military aircraft.