Boeing shielded from federal regulators reviewing its 737 Max aircraft the extent and capability of the flawed computer system that ultimately brought down two jets, according to an inspector general report obtained by CNN.
The report also faults the Federal Aviation Administration for poor communication and notes it handed over the vast majority — 87% — of certification responsibility to Boeing.
The report, which is expected to be released publicly Wednesday, includes previously undisclosed details about interactions between the agency and planemaker and conclusions about how the process failed. It comes as the FAA is conducting test flights this week of the revised 737 Max, which has been grounded for more than a year since the second fatal crash in March 2019.
The report highlights multiple instances where Boeing presented limited information about the new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, system to regulators, with significant consequences.
It says the company portrayed the system “as a modification” to an existing system “that would only activate under certain limited conditions,” leading the FAA to focus its review on other aspects of the plane. One FAA engineer recalled MCAS was “presented briefly with limited details.”
In fact, when Boeing engineers briefed the agency at an important meeting on differences between the Max and earlier versions of its 737 aircraft, “there were only 2 lines of text within those almost 500 slides—covered over a 2-day period— that referenced MCAS,” according to the report.
Another document describing the airplane’s stability “included some details regarding MCAS,” but not “an interrelated view of how MCAS interacted with other systems, which was spread throughout several documents.”
At the same time, Boeing was making the MCAS system more pungent, allowing it to control the plane to a greater degree and activate repeatedly. The report highlights that some FAA employees — those involved in test flights of the aircraft — were aware of the changes, and faults the agency for leaving other FAA officials involved in oversight in the dark.
Agency engineers did not conduct a full analysis of the MCAS system, nor understand how it operated, until further scrutiny of the aircraft after the first 737 Max crash in October 2018, according to the report. Boeing subsequently developed a plan for changes to the MCAS system by April 2019. But about a month before that target, a second Max crashed, and the fleet was ultimately grounded worldwide. The crashes killed a combined 346 people.
The inspector general’s report comes as Boeing and the FAA are conducting 737 Max test flights, a key step in the FAA’s re-evaluation of the plane.
The company said in a statement Wednesday morning that it has “cooperated fully and extensively” with the inspector general’s office, and noted that the company “has made substantial changes” to both the plane and corporate structure in response to previous investigations related to the Max.
“We have made robust improvements to the 737 MAX flight control software, including ensuring MCAS cannot be activated based on signals from a single sensor and cannot be activated repeatedly,” the statement said. “We have dedicated all resources necessary to ensure that the improvements to the 737 MAX are comprehensive and thoroughly tested.”
The Department of Transportation’s general counsel wrote in a memo after reviewing the report that it “reveals some strengths in FAA’s aircraft certification process, as well as areas for improvement.” Changes at the FAA, the memo said, will “ensure integrity and transparency with regard to information sharing.”
One of the lawmakers who requested the report, House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, said the report highlights “Boeing’s efforts to conceal critical information from regulators in its rush to get the MAX to market.”
The report also scrutinized the delegation of FAA safety reviews to Boeing, a common practice in US airplane design and manufacturing.
It noted that 42 FAA employees oversee 1,500 Boeing employees with certification authority. Internal Boeing documents previously released showed Boeing employees, including a key official in the certification effort, mocking the agency and slamming the aircraft’s design.
The document notes that Boeing and the FAA were looking into “concerns about undue pressure on” Boeing employees who had FAA authority to sign off on aspects of the plane. It said that future reports on the delegation process would be forthcoming.
Congress is currently working on legislation to overhaul the delegation process. FAA Administrator Steven Dickson recently said he does not believe one aspect of that bi-partisan plan is necessary: That the FAA, rather than manufacturers like Boeing, determine which employees are put in the pipeline for the delegation authority.
As the re-certification process for the aircraft is underway, Boeing now supports simulator training for all 737 Max pilots, including those who flew earlier versions of the 737 — something that pilots union officials said should have been required in the first place. The FAA said this week it has not yet determined requirements for pilot training.
The company designed the 737 Max with the goal of avoiding simulator training, which would be expensive for airlines buying the plane.
But even if simulator training had been required prior to the initial 737 Max debut, pilots may still have been in the dark about the MCAS system, because notes about MCAS were removed from training documents, the report notes.
“Therefore, any simulator training, while not proposed, probably would not have included MCAS.”