Senate investigators have heaped criticism on both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration, finding a series of failures and improprieties during the review process that put the troubled Boeing 737 Max jetliner in the sky.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation laid out the fatal missteps in a scathing report issued Friday.
"Our findings are troubling," the committee chairman, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., said in a statement accompanying the report.
He said the Senate probe — launched in April 2019, after a pair of crashes involving the plane killed hundreds of people in Indonesia and Ethiopia -- analyzed comments from dozens of whistleblowers and FAA staff, as well as thousands of pages of documents.
"The report details a number of significant examples of lapses in aviation safety oversight and failed leadership in the FAA," Wicker said. "It is clear that the agency requires consistent oversight to ensure their work to protect the flying public is executed fully and correctly."
Among those "lapses" is the claim that Boeing officials were allowed to improperly influence the outcome of tests of the aircraft's faulty flight control system, known as MCAS. The system software, while intended to keep the plane from stalling, has been blamed for forcing the plane into nosedives that pilots have struggled — and in the case of the two crashes, failed — to recover from.
After the plane was grounded worldwide in March 2019, it underwent a review for recertification in the U.S. Last month the FAA cleared the Boeing 737 Max to resume passenger flights, provided that it undergoes a series of significant design changes and observes new requirements for pilot training and maintenance.
But the Senate committee found fault with the tests that ultimately resulted in the plane's recertification in the U.S., including the claim that FAA officials and representatives from Boeing together "established a pre-determined outcome" to those tests.
"Boeing officials inappropriately coached test pilots in the MCAS simulator testing contrary to testing protocol. This test took place over a year after the second 737 MAX crash and during recertification efforts," the report alleges. "It appears, in this instance, FAA and Boeing were attempting to cover up important information that may have contributed to the 737 MAX tragedies."
The Senate report also detailed a number of other problems at the FAA and its parent agency, the Department of Transportation, including:
- Retaliations against whistleblowers and failures to hold FAA senior managers accountable for inadequate training protocols
- The Transportation Department's failure to "produce relevant documents" requested by the committee
- Possible obstruction by "FAA senior leaders" of a review of the 737 MAX crashes by a Transportation Department inspector general.
"This dysfunction," the report concluded, "inserts an unnecessary risk to the flying public."
In a statement emailed to NPR on Saturday, the FAA pushed back on what it described as the report's "unsubstantiated allegations."
"Working closely with other international regulators, the FAA conducted a thorough and deliberate review of the 737 MAX," the agency said. "We are confident that the safety issues that played a role in the tragic accidents involving Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 have been addressed through the design changes required and independently approved by the FAA and its partners."
Boeing, too, said in a statement that the company "learned many hard lessons" from the pair of disasters — though Boeing did not address the report's allegations specifically.
For both Boeing and the FAA, the Senate committee's findings represent the second damning congressional report in roughly three months. The House Transportation Committee in September found that Boeing had displayed "a disturbing pattern of technical miscalculations and troubling management misjudgments," while the FAA suffered from "numerous oversight lapses and accountability gaps."
Still, those findings have not dissuaded several airlines from resuming flights with the troubled aircraft. Brazil's Gol Airlines resumed commercial service with the jetliner earlier this month, a week after Ireland's Ryanair placed an order estimated to cost more than $7 billion.