FAA calls for changes to how new planes are certified after Boeing 737 Max failures

By Kyle Arnold

The Dallas Morning News

The Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing made key mistakes certifying the new complex software system on the 737 Max that is now blamed for crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia and led to a worldwide grounding of the aircraft, according to a new report that adds more scrutiny to the process of approving passenger airplanes.

The report from the Joint Authorities Technical Review panel and commissioned by the FAA criticizes both the government agency and Boeing for the certification process that allowed the faulty MCAS software.

The 737 Max process shows the FAA needs to spend more time accounting for human factors with pilots when certifying new elements on planes, hire more inspectors to oversee new aircraft and update policies to deal with increasingly complex systems, the report said. It also urged the FAA to share safety information with foreign aviation authorities.

“The (committee) found that the MCAS was not evaluated as a complete and integrated function in the certification documents that were submitted to the FAA,” the report said.

The report was submitted to the FAA Friday by a group made up of aviation authorities, including former National Transportation Safety Board chairman Christopher Hart and representatives from the FAA, National Aeronautics and Space Administration and aviation officials from China, Canada and the European Union, among others.

The panel was discouraged from reviewing how and if the 737 Max should be recertified to fly again.

“Today’s unprecedented U.S. safety record was built on the willingness of aviation professionals to embrace hard lessons and to seek continuous improvement,” said a statement from FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson, who took over the job in July. “We welcome this scrutiny and are confident that our openness to these efforts will further bolster aviation safety worldwide.”

In a statement, a spokesman for Boeing said the company welcomes the review and is working with the FAA to improve the process to certify planes.

The FAA review backs up recommendations on the certification process made by the NTSB in September, including a need to reevaluate pilot response.

The report on the 737 Max comes as airlines, including Texas-based American and Southwest, wait for approval to fly the 737 Max again. American and Southwest don’t expect to fly the plane again until at least January. The grounding has put significant strains on operations at American and Southwest, which operated the largest fleets in the U.S. of 737 Max planes.

Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said pilots want Boeing to share what changes are being made to the 737 Max’s software system.

“As pilots, we have to be able to trust that Boeing will provide all the information we need to safely operate our aircraft,” Weaks said. “In the case of the 737 MAX, that absolutely did not happen.”

The Southwest pilots union is suing Boeing over $100 million in lost wages and other damages as the plane continues to be grounded.

Allied Pilots Association President Eric Ferguson, who represents American Airlines pilots, said he was set to meet Friday with Dickson to talk about the Max and other issues.

“There were worries that the certification process was flawed,” Ferguson said.

The flight attendants union for American Airlines similarly said that it will make its own determinations as to whether the 737 Max is safe to fly after it receives updates from the FAA, Boeing and the Fort Worth-based airline.

“It will be imperative that my members are assured of the complete safety of this aircraft before taking it back up in the air,” Association of Professional Flight Attendants President Lori Bassani said. “I can tell you that we will rely on multiple factors in making the determination that it is safe for our crews to fly.”

The FAA ordered the review in June after taking criticism for allowing the plane to fly back in 2017.

At the heart of the report is Boeing’s MCAS system, a software designed to help keep the plane flying level at high speeds after larger, more fuel-efficient engines were added to the updated 737 model. But that software didn’t always react as anticipated. Reports from crashes that killed 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia showed that pilots struggled to handle planes equipped with MCAS, which stands for the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System.

But the system took over control of planes because faulty sensors told the software that the plane was angled too far up. Pilots in those cases failed to correct the runaway MCAS system, leading to the crashes.

The FAA report released Friday said the agency needs to update its policies for determining how long it takes pilots to recognize and respond to problems.

Another problem, the report said, was certifying an updated plane based on an old model. Because the 737 Max was based on the original 737 from 1967, the FAA didn’t perform the needed analysis on design changes, including MCAS, the report said. One recommendation said that in the future, the regulatory agency should put more scrutiny into new systems on old plane designs.

The report also said Boeing failed to share critical information on the disputed software system and the FAA needs more inspectors to handle these kinds of projects.

Investigations from The Seattle Times, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal said FAA inspectors delegated authority and expertise to Boeing’s engineering teams, who were under pressure to rush the plane to delivery.

The FAA’s report backed that up and said there were signs of “undue pressure,” which “further erodes the level of assurance in the system of delegation.”

However, the review backed up the long-standing practice of delegating some elements of inspections to teams at airline manufacturers, something criticized in the aftermath of the 737 Max crashes. But only if done properly.

“With adequate FAA engagement and oversight, the extent of delegation does not in itself compromise safety,” the report said. “However, in the 737 Max program, the FAA had inadequate awareness of the MCAS function.”