Senate Whistleblower Report: After Boeing 737 Max Crashes, Problems with FAA Oversight Continue
A screengrab from the Sept. 2021 FRONTLINE/New York Times documentary, "Boeing's Fatal Flaw."
The Federal Aviation Administration must take additional action to address aviation safety and oversight issues revealed by the deadly Boeing 737 Max crashes in 2018 and 2019, according to a whistleblower report released Monday by Democratic members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The report highlights the accounts of seven named aviation safety whistleblowers, with their permission. The report suggests that, despite the passage of the bipartisan Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act in December 2020, “systemic problems continue to exist, including understaffed FAA offices charged with certification oversight responsibility for manufacturers and the continued risk of undue pressure under the FAA’s system of delegated authority.”
FRONTLINE and The New York Times examined how commercial pressures, problematic design and failed oversight allowed Boeing’s 737 Max planes to make it into the air in the September 2021 documentary Boeing’s Fatal Flaw. The film featured the first on-camera interview with Joe Jacobsen, an FAA engineer from 1995 to 2021 and one of the whistleblowers whose allegations form the backbone of the Senate report.
Jacobsen told FRONTLINE in the documentary that, after the first Boeing 737 Max crash in 2018, he reviewed the downed plane’s black box data and quickly raised concerns about the Max’s safety.
“I talked to three managers, said this is a design flaw,” Jacobsen said, referring to a system on the plane, MCAS, that he said was “purposely designed and certified” to rely on a single sensor. “They were skeptical, not really buying in, saying the pilot should have been able to intervene.”
“It’s a failure,” he said in the film. “Our job is aviation safety, and when airplanes go down, we feel a real personal sense of loss and remorse and failure, and it affects a lot of people.”
The FAA did not ground the 737 Max until after a second, similar crash also involving MCAS less than five months later. Combined, the deadly crashes killed 346 people.
The Senate report highlighted what it indicated were industry-wide issues posed by the FAA’s delegated authority system, an arrangement that allows the federal government to give some oversight powers to the companies being regulated, as explored in Boeing’s Fatal Flaw.
“The airplanes are part of the story, but so are the regulators,” Natalie Kitroeff, one of The New York Times reporters who investigated the crashes, said in the documentary.
Boeing’s Fatal Flaw also looked at internal communications, showing how Boeing was determined to avoid potential scrutiny by the FAA, even requesting that mentions of MCAS be removed from pilot training manuals.
According to Reuters, the FAA said on Monday it “takes all whistleblower allegations seriously and does not tolerate retaliation against those who raise safety concerns.” At a November 2021 Senate hearing covered by The Seattle Times, current FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said that the FAA had “put more rigorous oversight” on Boeing and “restricted what is delegated,” that the company “is not the same as it was two years ago, but they have more work to do,” and that “we are on the path that we need to be but it requires continuous vigilance and attention.”
Boeing told Reuters it was reviewing the Senate report and that “Boeing teammates are encouraged to speak up whenever they have safety or quality concerns.” The company also said many of the concerns covered in the report “have been previously publicized, and Boeing has worked to address them with oversight” from the FAA.
Boeing declined to be interviewed for Boeing’s Fatal Flaw. In a statement at the time, the company said safety is its top priority and it has worked closely with regulators, investigators and stakeholders “to implement changes that ensure accidents like these never happen again.”
Earlier this year, the company resolved a criminal charge of conspiracy to defraud the United States brought by the Department of Justice and admitted to “misleading statements, half-truths and omissions” about MCAS. It agreed to pay a $2.5 billion settlement: $500 million to the families of the victims and most of the rest to compensate the airlines.
The FAA retested and approved the 737 Max in November 2020, and it is once again flying passengers.