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Did the FAA’s deference to Boeing compromise safety of 737 Max?

The Federal Aviation Administration grounded all Boeing 737 Max passenger jetliners in March, after the plane’s second deadly crash in five months. But questions remain about why the agency didn’t act sooner. Now, a New York Times investigation suggests the FAA’s role in the 737 Max's approval process may have compromised its safety. John Yang talks to investigative reporter Natalie Kitroeff.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    In March, the second of two deadly air crashes in five months led the Federal Aviation Administration to ground all Boeing 737 MAX passenger jetliners. But it also raised immediate questions about why the agency had not acted more quickly.

    Now, as John Yang reports, an investigation by The New York Times indicates that the FAA's actions during the 737 MAX's review process may have compromised the safety of the plane itself.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, The Times found that FAA engineers were increasingly sidelined and kept in the dark about key developments during the approval process of the 737 MAX, and that FAA managers often deferred to Boeing.

    In fact, after the first deadly crash, the newspaper says FAA officials realized they didn't fully understand the automated system now blamed for helping send the two planes into fatal nosedives.

    Natalie Kitroeff is the lead reporter on that article in The Times, and she joins us now from The Times newsroom in New York.

    Natalie, thanks so much for joining us.

    This automated system called MCAS, Boeing intended it as a way to prevent the plane from losing the ability to fly by having the nose pitch up too high.

    So why is it — explain to us how it is that the FAA, after that first crash, went into their records, and realized they had very little information on it?

  • Natalie Kitroeff:

    So what happened is, during the development of the plane, late in the process, the FAA gave Boeing the right to fully approve this system.

    At the time, MCAS was a system that would only activate in very rare scenarios. But then Boeing changed the system and fundamentally expanded its use. But, at that point, Boeing had no responsibility to hand over a new safety assessment to the FAA.

    At that point, Boeing had control over the approval process, and the company determined that the change to MCAS didn't make the system any more dangerous.

  • John Yang:

    How does that happen? How does Boeing, how does the regulator turn over to the manufacturer basic tasks in the approval process?

  • Natalie Kitroeff:

    This is a process known as delegation.

    And the FAA has long relied on company engineers inside Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers to help certify their own aircraft. But after intense lobbying to Congress by industry, the FAA adopted new rules that allowed the company to take on more and more of the regulatory process.

    So through this system of delegation, the company was able to have final sign-off over the system.

  • John Yang:

    And you wrote, in your investigation, you found that sometimes there were disputes between FAA engineers and Boeing about safety issues, and that the managers would defer to Boeing.

    The example you cited was about cables that control the rudder.

  • Natalie Kitroeff:

    That's absolutely right.

    In this case, there was a dispute over these cables, which FAA engineers, most of them who are working on this issue wanted the company to make these cables safer. Boeing pushed back. And the FAA managers sided with Boeing over the engineers in the FAA, and then gave Boeing the ability to approve these cables.

    An engineer inside the FAA filed a safety complaint about this issue. But, again, managers were deferring to Boeing and specifically cited Boeing's timeline as one of the reasons.

  • John Yang:

    And talk about that timeline.

    Boeing was rushing to get this plane approved because they were facing competition from Airbus.

  • Natalie Kitroeff:

    That's right.

    Boeing was in a competition with Airbus to get a new plane out. Boeing was behind. Changing these cables would likely have meant delays. And so, again, FAA managers specifically said that making a change would be impractical this late in Boeing's timeline.

  • John Yang:

    Could there be other problems, other issues that — like the MCAS, that just haven't surfaced yet because of this relationship between Boeing and the FAA?

  • Natalie Kitroeff:

    I think everything is on the table at this point.

    The investigations are still ongoing. And I think it's really important to await the conclusions of those investigations. But what is clear is that lawmakers and federal investigators are now looking very closely at every aspect of this plane and of the certification of it.

  • John Yang:

    Natalie Kitroeff with The New York Times, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Natalie Kitroeff:

    Thank you.

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