About a month after a Boeing 737 Max plunged into the Java Sea, killing 189 people in October 2018, the FAA privately conducted a grim analysis that predicted more fatal crashes for the aircraft, according to a report released at a House hearing Wednesday.
The agency's Transport Airplane Risk Assessment predicted at least 15 more fatal crashes over the lifetime of the entire 737 Max fleet of 4,800 aircraft assuming a design flaw linked to their new MCAS steering system blamed for the crash was not fixed. It also assumed pilots could react within seconds to what one lawmaker called “a cacophony” of alarms and alerts in the cockpit.
Despite the Dec. 3, 2018 risk analysis, the FAA did not ground the aircraft. Within three months, a second 737 Max crashed in Ethiopia, killing 157 people.
“The FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which Wednesday grilled FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson as part of the committee’s fifth hearing investigating two deadly crashes involving the Boeing 737 Max.
The agency downplayed the importance of the assessment, saying in a written statement Wednesday that it used the report to validate its decision to issue a directive warning pilots about the steering system after the first crash of the Lion Air jet. After the Ethiopia crash, in March 2019, a second risk management assessment led it to ground the aircraft, according to the statement.
DeFazio said the first report should have grounded the plane. "There is not supposed to be an airplane certified in the United States of America or anywhere," he said, with a system "that's going to cause a crash."
He said the report "should have rung alarm bells and apparently it didn't and we're going to be getting into that."
The aircraft has been grounded since March, and while Boeing has been optimistic it will be able to return the fleet to service before the new year, Dickson predicted to CNBC Wednesday that the process of recertifying the aircraft would stretch into 2020.
The FAA has been criticized for a process called Organization Delegation Authorization that allows it to delegate parts of its certification process to manufacturers. Critics say too much authority was given to Boeing, which allowed circumstances leading to the fatal crashes. DeFazio has described the relationship between the aircraft manufacturer and the federal agency as too cozy.
'Fly it myself'
But Dickson on Wednesday assured the panel that the FAA will be fully in control of the Max’s return to service, and he will not sign off on the Max “until I fly it myself.”
“We are not delegating anything to Boeing,” he said, saying the process “is not guided by a calendar or schedule.”
In a statement, Boeing said the risk assessment analysis spurred the FAA to determine that the plane could continue flying while the new MCAS system was being fixed, if the agency and company reinforced existing pilot procedures to avoid stalls triggered by the system.
Even as Dickson sought to reassure the lawmakers, a former Boeing employee who repeatedly warned company officials about the working conditions at the Renton, Wash., plant where the aircraft was being built, urged lawmakers to investigate conditions at that plant.
Some Republicans on the panel sought to calm the fears of the flying public, such as ranking Republican Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., saying that he still believes the FAA is the “gold standard in the world for safety.”
Graves said when the FAA approves the Max for flight again “it’s going to be safe to fly, no doubt in my mind.”
He and other lawmakers made it clear that they did not blame Dickson personally — he became FAA administrator in August 2019 — and Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., said he’d like to have prior FAA officials testifying about the certification process as well.
But, while DeFazio acknowledged Dickson’s lack of direct responsibility for the crash, he questioned why the aircraft was not grounded after the first flight. He said that FAA officials told him after the first crash that the accident was a “one-off” despite the fact that the internal analysis suggested otherwise.
“In retrospect, do you think (the aircraft) should’ve been grounded after Lion Air?” DeFazio asked.
Dickson declined to answer, instead opting to defend the FAA workforce.
“I want to advocate for my people,” he said.
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