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Pilot messages reveal 2016 concerns over safety of Boeing 737 Max

Boeing is facing new questions about its dealings with federal safety regulators over the grounded 737 Max jet. At issue are 2016 messages from a Boeing pilot who says he lied to officials about a flight-control system now linked to two deadly crashes. The FAA wants to learn what else Boeing knew about the flaw -- and when. Amna Nawaz talks to David Shepardson of Reuters, who broke the story.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Newly revealed messages from Boeing pilots show that the company has known for several months now that there were concerns being raised by pilots about the 737 MAX's safety.

    It's leading to questions of whether Boeing misled the Federal Aviation Administration.

    Amna Nawaz is back with the story.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    The messages in question were sent by a Boeing pilot back in 2016. That was more than two years before two fatal airline crashes involving that 737 MAX. Those crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people.

    Now, an automated flight control and anti-stall system that is known as MCAS is at the heart of ongoing investigations. When the system was still being certified in 2016, the Boeing pilot messaged a second pilot, saying the system was difficult to control in flight simulations.

    In some of the messages, he wrote this — quote — "Granted, I suck at flying, but even this was egregious."

    And then there are — quote — "some real fundamental issues that they claim they're aware of."

    Now, Boeing has insisted there were no serious problems during that certification period.

    But the head of FAA wrote to Boeing today, asking why the company had not told the government about these messages months ago.

    David Shepardson of Reuters first broke this story. He joins me now.

    Welcome back to "NewsHour."

  • David Shepardson:

    Thanks.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, at the time of the certification process in 2016, what role are these pilots supposed to be playing?

  • David Shepardson:

    Right.

    So, their job is to convince the FAA that this system is safe under a variety of different simulations, different tests, different various flight patterns.

    And during this period, they uncovered, it appears in these messages, more problems with MCAS, this anti-stall system, than was aware, because, remember, this system was designed to address the potential that the new plane, with bigger engines, more fuel-efficient, would stall, would tend to push its nose to the ground.

    And Boeing has said this system would just operate in the background. It wouldn't — pilots didn't even need to know about. It wouldn't be in the fight manual.

    And what these messages show or suggest is that, at least internally, there were more concerns raised about the system than we knew about.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do we have any idea how this conversation went from here, if it got reported up, if it went all the way up to Boeing executives?

  • David Shepardson:

    We don't know that.

    There are — the Justice Department, the FBI, the inspector general from the DOT, there are a lot of reviews going on looking at this very question. We do know there are a lot of concerns that have been raised in a couple of reports about how the FAA delegates much of the responsibility for certifying new planes to Boeing itself.

    And, as a result, Congress today is saying, hey, we need to take a look at this whole process. Should Boeing be doing much of the work of certifying the plane that the FAA is responsible for?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, the company, as mentioned, they found these a few months ago. Why are we just finding out about them right now?

  • David Shepardson:

    Well, it goes back to this issue about the Justice Department.

    So they — Boeing turned these documents, we have now learned, over to the FBI in February. And there is some concern about whether — were there other reasons why — if the FAA's role or DOT's role in that certification is being investigated, was that a legitimate reason for Boeing not to turn those over?

    I mean, FAA today said, we need those documents. We're trying to review, ensure that the new MCAS, when this plane goes back into service, operates properly, and we need to see everything.

    So — and the question is, are there more documents? Are there are other shoes to drop about other concerns about this system?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And the real heart of this is the question about what they knew about the MCAS system, based on what we know, in terms of the role they played in those two fatal crashes, right?

  • David Shepardson:

    Absolutely, because, remember, this issue is about the fact that it's just a misfire, because it got conflicting data from these sensors on the outside of the airplane. And it only took data from — that had they had additional safeguards, like the ones that the FAA is demanding now, potentially, could you have prevented those two crashes?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, the FAA says it's not going to lift the grounding on the 737 MAXes until they determine that they are safe to fly.

    Does these — this new revelation, these messages, these earlier concerns, does that complicate this process in any way?

  • David Shepardson:

    Well, it's certainly more bad news.

    We just saw this week that Southwest Airlines, the largest operator of these planes, has delayed their flights until at least February. Other U.S. airlines are until January.

    And I do think — I talked to the chairman of the House Transportation Committee. He said, these do suggest that the FAA needs to make sure that Boeing is being completely up front, there are no other documents or other issues about MCAS that aren't fully resolved.

    And, look, every deadline so far has been missed. I mean, this plane was supposed to back in the air a long time ago. We're still waiting for a certification flight first. And then that's at least another month or six weeks beyond that, the earliest this plane could go back in the air.

    So it's certainly not good news. And, also, remember, the public has to be confident that they can go back in these airplanes. And that's probably the bigger issue. Will people go back on the planes once the FAA gives the OK?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meanwhile, at the same time, Boeing's chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, is going to be testifying on Capitol Hill both before a Senate and a House committee.

    What are some of those key questions you think need to be answered right now?

  • David Shepardson:

    Well, first, he lost his title as chairman only one week ago today. The board stripped him of that title.

    And, no, he's going to be asked a lot of questions. How come no one at Boeing has been disciplined or fired as a result of this? Is it really your position that Boeing did nothing wrong? I mean, their — publicly, they have said, we — our only goal is to make a safe plane safer.

    And I think that's the key questions that are going to be asked. Did Boeing make mistakes? Was this a preventable tragedy? What exactly did Boeing know about this key safety system? Did regulators know enough? And does the whole system of how planes are certified to operate need to be changed?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    I should point out, again, you first broke this story. These are just some of the messages you have been able to uncover.

  • David Shepardson:

    Right.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you expect there could be more?

  • David Shepardson:

    Well, just late tonight, another 10 pages of e-mails went from the FAA to Congress from the same pilot involved in these — in the internal text messages.

    So that sheds a little more light. They're not as explosive as what we have seen so far.

    But, no, I think, between the FBI, the I.G. and others, more is going to come out about, what exactly did Boeing know internally during that period?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    We will be following your reporting, for sure.

    David Shepardson of Reuters, thanks so much for being here.

  • David Shepardson:

    Thanks.

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