The U.S. Transportation Department began an investigation of how Boeing Co.’s 737 Max was certified to fly passengers before the latest crash in Ethiopia involving the new jet, according to a person familiar with the probe.
The investigation was prompted by information obtained after a Lion Air 737 Max 8 crashed shortly after takeoff from Jakarta on Oct. 29, said the person, who wasn’t authorized to speak about the investigation and asked not to be named.
The investigation has taken on new urgency after the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 near Addis Ababa that killed 157 people. It is being conducted in part by the department’s Inspector General’s office, which conducts both audits and criminal investigations in conjunction with the Justice Department.
Boeing shares were down 2.6 percent to $369.22 at 12:44 p.m. March 18 in New York, heading toward a new low since the deadly crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10.
Separately, the Wall Street Journal reported that a grand jury in Washington, D.C., on March 11 issued a subpoena to at least one person involved in the development process of the Max. And a Seattle Times investigation found that U.S. regulators delegated much of the plane’s safety assessment to Boeing and that the company, in turn, delivered an analysis with crucial flaws. Ethiopia’s transport minister said March 17 that flight-data recorders showed “clear similarities” between the crashes of that plane and Lion Air Flight 610 last October.
A possible criminal investigation during an aircraft accident investigation is highly unusual. While airline accidents have at times raised criminal issues, such as after the 1996 crash of a ValuJet plane in the Florida Everglades, such cases are the exception.
U.S. Federal Aviation Administration employees warned seven years ago that Boeing had too much sway over safety approvals of new aircraft, prompting an investigation by Transportation Department auditors who confirmed the agency hadn’t done enough to “hold Boeing accountable.”
The 2012 investigation also found that discord over Boeing’s treatment had created a “negative work environment” among FAA employees who approve new and modified aircraft designs, with many of them saying they’d faced retaliation for speaking up. Their concerns pre-dated the 737 Max development.
In recent years, the FAA has shifted more authority over the approval of new aircraft to the manufacturer itself, even allowing Boeing to choose many of the personnel who oversee tests and vouch for safety. Just in the past few months, Congress expanded the outsourcing arrangement even further.
“It raises for me the question of whether the agency is properly funded, properly staffed and whether there has been enough independent oversight,” said Jim Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001 and is now an aviation-safety consultant.
At least a portion of the flight-control software suspected in the 737 Max crashes was certified by one or more Boeing employees who worked in the outsourcing arrangement, according to one person familiar with the work who wasn’t authorized to speak about the matter.
Both Boeing and the Transportation Department declined to comment about that inquiry.
In a statement on March 18, the FAA said its “aircraft certification processes are well established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs,” adding that the “737 Max certification program followed the FAA’s standard certification process.”
The Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed minutes after it took off from Addis Ababa. The accident prompted most of the world to ground Boeing’s 737 Max 8 aircraft on safety concerns, coming on the heels of the October crash off the coast of Indonesia that killed 189 people. Much of the attention focused on a flight-control system that can automatically push a plane into a catastrophic nose dive if it malfunctions and pilots don’t react properly.
In one of the most detailed descriptions yet of the relationship between Boeing and the FAA during the 737 Max’s certification, the Seattle Times quoted unnamed engineers who said the planemaker had understated the power of the flight-control software in a System Safety Analysis submitted to the FAA. The newspaper said the analysis also failed to account for how the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded—in essence, gradually ratcheting the horizontal stabilizer into a dive position.
Boeing told the newspaper in a statement that the FAA had reviewed the company’s data and concluded the aircraft “met all certification and regulatory requirements.” The company, which is based in Chicago but designs and builds commercial jets in the Seattle area, said there are “some significant mischaracterizations” in the engineers’ comments.
The newspaper also quoted unnamed FAA technical experts who said managers prodded them to speed up the certification process as development of the Max was nine months behind that of rival Airbus SE’s A320neo.
The FAA has let technical experts at aircraft makers act as its representatives to perform certain tests and approve some parts for decades. The FAA expanded the scope of that program in 2005 to address concerns about adequately keeping pace with its workload. Known as Organization Designation Authorization, or ODA, it let Boeing and other manufacturers choose the employees who approve design work on the agency’s behalf.
Previously, the FAA approved each appointment. Under the new approach, which was fully implemented in 2009, the ODA representatives are still under U.S. legal requirements and the FAA has the authority to oversee them and request that their management be changed.
In 2012, a special investigator of the Office of Inspector General at the Department of Transportation sent a memo to the FAA’s audit chief warning him of concerns voiced by agency employees about the new process. Some allegations were made in anonymous faxes sent to the inspector general’s office, and the office followed up by interviewing employees in the FAA’s Transport Airplane Directorate.
The agency doesn’t have the budget to do every test, and “the use of designees is absolutely necessary,” said Steve Wallace, the former head of accident investigations at the FAA. “For the most part, it works extremely well. There is a very high degree of integrity in the system.”
There is strong support among airlines for the 737 family, based on its long history as a reliable, dependable aircraft, said John Strickland, an independent air-transport consultant. It’s not easy to suddenly “switch horses, sort to speak.”
Airbus’s order book is full for several years, and airlines have fleet philosophies that affect training, the pilot force, and maintenance, for example. “Having said that, obviously airlines need to have the confidence in the aircraft that they can fly,” he said. “That equally reflects in confidence in their own customers and the traveling public.”
By Alan Levin & Peter Robison