US transport department faults aviation body over Boeing 737 MAX

In new report, US Transportation Department says ‘much work remains’ in fixing how aviation body certifies new planes.

Boeing 737 MAX evaluation flight
Boeing's 737 MAX aircraft re-entered US commercial service in December after the Federal Aviation Administration approved changes the planemaker made to an automated flight-control system implicated in the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia [File: Mike Siegel/Pool via Reuters]

The United States Department of Transportation inspector general has faulted “weaknesses” in US government certification of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft that was grounded for 20 months after two crashes killed 346 people, according to a new report.

The 63-page report released on Wednesday said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not have a complete understanding of a Boeing Co safety system tied to both crashes.

It also said “much work remains to address weaknesses in FAA’s certification guidance and processes” and cited “management and oversight weaknesses”.

The 737 MAX re-entered commercial service in the US in December after the FAA approved changes that Boeing made to an automated flight-control system implicated in the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Boeing agreed to a $2.5bn settlement with the US Department of Justice in January into the MAX as part of a deferred prosecution agreement, a form of corporate plea bargain.

The FAA agreed to implement all 14 recommendations in the Department of Transportation report and said it “has already made substantial progress towards implementing reforms that address some of your recommendations.”

Boeing said it has “undertaken significant changes to reinforce our safety practices, and we have already made progress” on recommendations outlined in the report.

The report noted “instances where the same company engineer worked on a particular design and then approved the design” as a Boeing employee conducting certification tasks for the FAA.

‘Adequately independent’

The report added FAA needs to do more to ensure personnel conducting certification tasks “are adequately independent.” It was the second report by the inspector general’s office into the fatal crashes. The first, issued in June, disclosed Boeing had failed to submit documents to the FAA.

Memorial Service For Victims Of The Ethipian Airlines Crash
All 157 people on board Ethiopian Airways ET302, a Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, were killed when it crashed shortly after taking off from Bole Airport in March 2019, months after a fatal crash involving the same type of plane in Indonesia. A total of 346 people died in the two crashes [File: Jemal Countess/Getty Images]

In December, Congress passed legislation reforming how the FAA certifies aeroplanes, especially the longstanding practice of delegating some certification tasks to manufacturers.

The report urges the FAA to “incorporate lessons” from the accidents into “implementing a risk-based approach” in delegating oversight and said reforms “will be vital to restore confidence in FAA’s certification process and ensure the highest level of safety in future certification efforts”.

The new law boosts the FAA’s oversight of aircraft manufacturers, requires disclosure of critical safety information and new whistle-blower protections.

The legislation requires an independent review of Boeing’s safety culture.

The FAA said it is encouraging manufacturers to engage earlier in “their development process to provide the agency a better understanding of novel features.”

It is also working with other civil aviation authorities “to evaluate certification requirements for derivative aircraft, thus ensuring a consistent worldwide approach to safety and the similar evaluation and treatment of design changes.”

Source: Reuters, The Seattle Times