Boeing and FAA face tough questions on approval process

After crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max model have grounded the plane globally, safety experts are asking how the plane was developed and tested—and calling out poor practices.

Milan, Italy - August 10, 2017: Boeing logo on the website homepage.

The 737 Max hasn’t just dinged Boeing’s reputation.

The entire U.S. has seen increased scrutiny on how planes are tested, reviewed by government agencies and grounded when found to be unsafe. The FAA has been forced to defend its review practices as agencies and nations worldwide have grounded the 737 Max.

Particularly damning, a report from the Seattle Times says both the FAA and Boeing were informed of safety flaws with the aircraft 11 days ago, before the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.

It reported:

Current and former engineers directly involved with the evaluations or familiar with the document shared details of Boeing’s “System Safety Analysis” of MCAS, which The Seattle Times confirmed.

The safety analysis:

  • Understated the power of the new flight control system, which was designed to swivel the horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document.
  • Failed to account for how the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the airplane’s nose downward.
  • Assessed a failure of the system as one level below “catastrophic.” But even that “hazardous” danger level should have precluded activation of the system based on input from a single sensor — and yet that’s how it was designed.

The people who spoke to The Seattle Times and shared details of the safety analysis all spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their jobs at the FAA and other aviation organizations.

Both Boeing and the FAA were informed of the specifics of this story and were asked for responses 11 days ago, before the second crash of a 737 Max last Sunday.

Despite that report, the FAA and Boeing were slow to respond to the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines flight and hesitated to ground the aircraft, even as entities around the world made that decision.

CNBC reported:

On Wednesday afternoon, Canada had joined most of the world in grounding the planes, citing new satellite data.

Hours later President Donald Trump said that the U.S. would also ground the planes, a type of announcement usually made by the FAA. The FAA’s acting administrator Daniel Elwell later told reporters that this new satellite-data and physical evidence more closely linked the Ethiopian Airlines crash of the Boeing 737 Max on March 10 to that of Lion Air Flight 610 that plunged into the Java Sea in Indonesia last October, killing all 189 aboard.

He defended the FAA’s decision to hold off on grounding the planes.

“We are a fact-driven, a data-based organization,” said Elwell told reporters after the FAA issued its order to ground the planes in the U.S. “Since this accident occurred we were resolute in our decision that we would not take action until we had data to support taking action. That data coalesced today and we made the call.”

Boeing said it recommended the decision to the FAA.

CNBC continued:

The inaction from the U.S. had drawn criticism from some, like former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose FAA grounded the Dreamliners in 2013, before the FAA made the call that it should have grounded the planes. “Safety can never be compromised,” he told CNBC.

Others, including former Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune, who previously oversaw production of 737s and 757 at Boeing, said the U.S. should wait until it had more information.

After the FAA decided to go ahead and ground the jets, Elwell told CNBC’s Closing Bell in an interview that the FAA, which certified the 737 Max plane, “didn’t feel global pressure.” The Max is a new variant with larger engines, made by a joint venture of General Electric and France’s Safran, and other features and rolled out in 2017.

On Monday and Tuesday, the FAA said it had no information to warrant grounding the Boeing 737 Max planes, even as other nations and airlines took that step. Of the more than 350 of the planes that have been delivered to carriers worldwide, 72 are in U.S. airline fleets, including those of AmericanUnited and Southwest. Boeing has 4,600 more on order globally.

Others are looking at how the FAA approves an aircraft in the first place, and some are pointing to relaxed regulation and a lack of funding as culprits in the Max failures.

New York Magazine wrote:

According to the Seattle Times, the FAA has made a habit of delegating parts of the regulation process to Boeing due to cuts in funding. For the 737 MAX, FAA managers reportedly pressured the agency’s safety engineers to hand over safety assessments to Boeing itself, and to green-light the company’s findings. Remarkably, the paper was working on the report prior to the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines flight, which killed all 157 occupants onboard: “Both Boeing and the FAA were informed of the specifics of this story and were asked for responses 11 days ago, before the second crash of a 737 MAX last Sunday.”

In 2015, Boeing reportedly pushed to expedite the 737 MAX’s approval in order to compete with the comparable Airbus A320neo, which had hit the market nine months ahead of Boeing’s newest 737 model. Several FAA employees told the Seattle Times that their managers asked them to hurry up the process, and hand over more work to Boeing. “There was constant pressure to reevaluate our initial decisions,” said one former FAA safety engineer. “Review was rushed to reach certain certification dates.”

Much of Boeing’s self-certification concerned the 737 MAX’s flight control program, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). The FAA reportedly allowed Boeing to handle the safety analysis on the MCAS, and the report the company handed over — which certified the plane as flight-ready — had several flaws.

According to the Seattle Times, the safety assessments “understated the power of the [MCAS],” which could move the plane’s tail “four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis.” The extra power was necessary because the MAX’s large engines were placed farther forward on the wing. However, the system “failed to account” for how it could “reset itself each time a pilot responded.” On the Lion Air flight, black-box data suggests that each time the captain pulled the plane’s nose up, the “MCAS kicked in … to push the nose down again,” causing the plane to crash into the Java Sea 12 minutes after takeoff.

The FAA’s role has been muddied by the unconventional presidency of Donald Trump, who reportedly took a unilateral decision to ground the plane. The FAA has refused to comment on the situation, but senior White House officials have spoken to reporters about what was said to the president.

The Washington Post reported:

Rather than simply being briefed on the FAA’s findings in the days after the crash, Trump played an active role, participating in phone calls with Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg and other stakeholders, and offering his thoughts about the aviation industry. Asked by reporters about the decision to ground the plane, Trump left the impression that he had taken the lead, saying it was a “very tough decision.”

But in the days that followed, as Trump faced criticism about whether his administration acted too slowly and whether he should have been so involved, the White House sought to direct attention back to the aviation agency.

A senior White House official said the FAA had repeatedly told the president by phone that there was no reason to ground the planes and that Boeing had a record for being safe. This official said the FAA showed the president how many Boeing planes were in the sky, told him that the particular model had been flying for years, and urged against a quick grounding.

An FAA spokesman declined to discuss what was communicated to the president. But agency officials offered various versions of this statement, to the public as well as others in government: “All available data . . . shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.”

The disagreement offers a window into the broader dysfunction that can result when the highly technical realm of crash investigations is made political.

Trump has also slammed the growing complexity of aircraft, tweeting that good pilots are needed to keep the skies safe.

Donald J. Trump


Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are….

64K people are talking about this

Yet some say the problem is more nuanced.

Pilot Peter Garrison wrote for NBC News:

When humans and automatic systems work together in harmony, as they usually do, the relationship between man and machine feels seamless. But when a breach appears, we discover that the interface between them is full of pitfalls.

As a first step, designers of automatic systems must recognize that they cannot expect mere humans to react to trouble with the speed, precision and clarity of digital computers. We just aren’t made that way. But it’s a romantic fantasy to think that “great pilots” are the solution. Great pilots make great mistakes too.

The slow response from Boeing has received criticism from PR pros.

PR Week wrote:

I have no doubt that Boeing’s team is scrambling around the globe to figure out what’s going on with their plane. The problem is, outside of Boeing, it hasn’t looked like that. It looks like they’re waiting to be told what to do rather than just doing it.

When people started dying in 1982 because someone poisoned Tylenol with potassium cyanide, Johnson & Johnson issued a nationwide recall, urged people not to take Tylenol and established a hotline for worried customers to call. It didn’t wait for the Food & Drug Administration to tell them what to do.

The recall cost the company millions in lost sales but consumers, regulators and the media lauded their management of the crisis, and the company’s reputation was burnished, not blemished.

At least in the case of Tylenol, it was known what was killing people: somebody had tampered with their product. The situation is far more grave with Boeing because nobody appears to know what’s happening with the 737 Max.

Boeing has issued a tepid statement in response to the crash.

ABC News reported:

Boeing said it supports the grounding of its planes as a precautionary step, while reiterating “full confidence” in their safety. Engineers are making changes to the system designed to prevent an aerodynamic stall if sensors detect that the jet’s nose is pointed too high and its speed is too slow.

What do you think of the federal government’s and Boeing’s responses, PR Dailyreaders?

(Image via)


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