A House panel says Boeing and the FAA failed on 737 Max safety. What needs to change? | Miles O'Brien Productions

A House panel says Boeing and the FAA failed on 737 Max safety. What needs to change?


The fatal crashes of two Boeing 737 Max jets that left 346 people dead resulted from multiple failures throughout the aircraft’s production and approval process. Now, a new and blistering report from Democrats on the House Transportation Committee reveals just how extensive those failures were — and underscores what needs to change. Science correspondent Miles O’Brien joins Amna Nawaz to discuss.


Judy Woodruff:

Tragedy in the skies: Two Boeing 737 Max jets crash in 2019. The cause? Multiple failures along the way.

Amna Nawaz explores a new blistering report that reveals the extent of errors and the need for change.

Amna Nawaz:

Judy, that report was issued by the Democratic members of the House Transportation Committee.

And their investigation into the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia found what they called — quote — “a horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”

The report also found — quote — “that Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers and 737 Max pilots.”

Our own aviation correspondent, Miles O’Brien, continues to cover this story, and he joins me now.

Miles, welcome back. It’s always good to see you.

We should note this isn’t the first investigation into those crashes, but it is the most comprehensive. It’s also striking that they seemed to find a problem or a failure at every single step along the way. How unusual is that?

Miles O’Brien:

It is unusual, Amna.

This is a systemic problem. This is not just an isolated situation. What the report paints is a picture of a company in a very competitive landscape, trying to get an aircraft to market, cutting corners financially, seeing problems that crop up at a low level, and those problems not being addressed by the company.

And, meanwhile, the regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, using its so-called designees, that is to say, Boeing employees that are supposed to be watching all of this, not aware of much of this, and to the extent the FAA was aware, overruling lower-ranking people at the FAA who raised concerns.

This is a problem that requires a fundamental rethink on how aircraft are designed, built and flown in this country.

Amna Nawaz:

Let me ask you what they found about Boeing’s role in all of this, because earlier investigations found there was a problem with something called the MCAS system a lot of people have about. It was a sensor feeding bad data that would then force the nose of the plane down.

Did we learn anything from this new report about what Boeing knew about that problem and how they handled it?

Miles O’Brien:

Engineers, pilots were all seeing the problem, which ultimately led to these two fatal crashes.

Those problems were raised, and nothing was done about them internally within Boeing. That didn’t get to the FAA either.

So, what you had was a serious problem, a problem that ultimately led to the loss of life, that was being papered over and overlooked.

Amna Nawaz:

The report also found, when it comes to the FAA, that the entire regulatory system is flawed and that it needs to be repaired.

And the thing we should point out is that, despite all those problems, the FAA signed off on the plane. It was deemed compliant. How does that happen?

Miles O’Brien:

Yes, how can it be compliant and still have two — and considered safe and still have two crashes? Obviously, that all doesn’t add up.

What you have is a system that, over the years, for decades, the FAA has essentially outsourced its capability to inspect in these processes and sign off to the companies themselves. So-called designees do the work for them. They don’t have their foot soldiers on the ground. It would require a lot of money and a huge change in the FAA process to change that.

But maybe it’s time to start thinking about not allowing the companies themselves to police their own procedures.

Amna Nawaz:

Well, a spokesperson for Boeing has this to say. They say: “We have been hard at work strengthening our safety culture, rebuilding trust with our customers, regulators and the flying public.”

They also say the company’s thoughts and prayers remain with the families of those who died in the crashes.

But, Miles, those 737 Max jets remain grounded worldwide right now. Will we see them back in the air anytime soon?

Miles O’Brien:

Yes, this is a multination effort right now, the United States, Brazil, and Canada, regulators in all these countries working together to try to get this aircraft back in flight.

There are so-called airworthiness directives out there that would fix the technical problems, but it is going to take a while to get to the point where this plane will be back in service, including the administrator of the FAA, Steve Dickson, is a very accomplished airline pilot. He is going to fly it.

There will be several other reports. There will be a final airworthiness directive. And then, finally, at that point, they will remove the grounding order and give it a new certification to fly.

But this is going to take some time. No one wants to put a date on the calendar yet.

Amna Nawaz:

That is Miles O’Brien covering this very important story for us.

Miles, thank you so much.

Miles O’Brien:

You’re welcome, Amna.

Judy Woodruff:

And a quick correction.

In my introduction to this report, I said there were two crashes in 2019. In fact, the first was in the fall of 2018. We regret the error.

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