Did the FAA’s deference to Boeing compromise safety of 737 MAX?

Did the FAA’s deference to Boeing compromise safety of 737 MAX?


JUDY WOODRUFF: In March, the second of two
deadly air crashes in five months led the
Federal Aviation Administration to ground
all Boeing 737 MAX passenger jetliners.
But it also raised immediate questions about
why the agency had not acted more quickly.
Now, as John Yang reports, an investigation
by The New York Times indicates that the FAA’s
actions during the 737 MAX’s review process
may have compromised the safety of the plane
itself.
JOHN YANG: Judy, The Times found that FAA
engineers were increasingly sidelined and
kept in the dark about key developments during
the approval process of the 737 MAX, and that
FAA managers often deferred to Boeing.
In fact, after the first deadly crash, the
newspaper says FAA officials realized they
didn’t fully understand the automated system
now blamed for helping send the two planes
into fatal nosedives.
Natalie Kitroeff is the lead reporter on that
article in The Times, and she joins us now
from The Times newsroom in New York.
Natalie, thanks so much for joining us.
This automated system called MCAS, Boeing
intended it as a way to prevent the plane
from losing the ability to fly by having the
nose pitch up too high.
So why is it — explain to us how it is that
the FAA, after that first crash, went into
their records, and realized they had very
little information on it?
NATALIE KITROEFF, The New York Times: So what
happened is, during the development of the
plane, late in the process, the FAA gave Boeing
the right to fully approve this system.
At the time, MCAS was a system that would
only activate in very rare scenarios.
But then Boeing changed the system and fundamentally
expanded its use.
But, at that point, Boeing had no responsibility
to hand over a new safety assessment to the
FAA.
At that point, Boeing had control over the
approval process, and the company determined
that the change to MCAS didn’t make the system
any more dangerous.
JOHN YANG: How does that happen?
How does Boeing, how does the regulator turn
over to the manufacturer basic tasks in the
approval process?
NATALIE KITROEFF: This is a process known
as delegation.
And the FAA has long relied on company engineers
inside Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers
to help certify their own aircraft.
But after intense lobbying to Congress by
industry, the FAA adopted new rules that allowed
the company to take on more and more of the
regulatory process.
So through this system of delegation, the
company was able to have final sign-off over
the system.
JOHN YANG: And you wrote, in your investigation,
you found that sometimes there were disputes
between FAA engineers and Boeing about safety
issues, and that the managers would defer
to Boeing.
The example you cited was about cables that
control the rudder.
NATALIE KITROEFF: That’s absolutely right.
In this case, there was a dispute over these
cables, which FAA engineers, most of them
who are working on this issue wanted the company
to make these cables safer.
Boeing pushed back.
And the FAA managers sided with Boeing over
the engineers in the FAA, and then gave Boeing
the ability to approve these cables.
An engineer inside the FAA filed a safety
complaint about this issue.
But, again, managers were deferring to Boeing
and specifically cited Boeing’s timeline as
one of the reasons.
JOHN YANG: And talk about that timeline.
Boeing was rushing to get this plane approved
because they were facing competition from
Airbus.
NATALIE KITROEFF: That’s right.
Boeing was in a competition with Airbus to
get a new plane out.
Boeing was behind.
Changing these cables would likely have meant
delays.
And so, again, FAA managers specifically said
that making a change would be impractical
this late in Boeing’s timeline.
JOHN YANG: Could there be other problems,
other issues that — like the MCAS, that just
haven’t surfaced yet because of this relationship
between Boeing and the FAA?
NATALIE KITROEFF: I think everything is on
the table at this point.
The investigations are still ongoing.
And I think it’s really important to await
the conclusions of those investigations.
But what is clear is that lawmakers and federal
investigators are now looking very closely
at every aspect of this plane and of the certification
of it.
JOHN YANG: Natalie Kitroeff with The New York
Times, thanks so much for joining us.
NATALIE KITROEFF: Thank you.

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