Soon after Lion Air Flight 610 plummeted into the Java Sea last October, killing all 189 people aboard, Boeing Co. began to point gingerly toward mistakes the airline may have made.
A preliminary report by Indonesian authorities recounted the trouble pilots had with a litany of mechanical woes. That same day, Boeing released its own summary of the findings. The aircraft maker didn’t draw conclusions. But it focused on other factors – potential miscues by maintenance crews and then by pilots who didn’t follow a checklist on the 737 Max 8 jet’s final flight.
The November statement set off Lion Air’s founder, Rusdi Kirana. In public, days later, he said he felt “betrayed” by what he saw as a shifting of blame. In a conference call, he hurled expletives at Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg, according to a person who heard the exchange and asked for anonymity to describe the private conversation.
Boeing’s narrative largely held – until Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed minutes after takeoff this month. Now scrutiny is landing on the iconic American planemaker, facing Congressional hearings and law enforcement investigations into how it handled its own responsibilities to guarantee the safety of the 737 Max planes. At the heart of the questions is the almost fraternal relationship between the company and its regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration.
As both pushed for savings and efficiency, alarms sounded. In one previously unreported case involving a separate aircraft program, a Boeing engineer sued three years ago, claiming he was fired for flagging safety problems that might have slowed development. Boeing has denied the claims.
Some FAA inspectors raised similar concerns, saying the agency had given Boeing too much responsibility for its own safety checks. The FAA manager at the center of complaints that triggered a federal audit seven years ago is now, after a stint at an aerospace lobbying group, in charge of safety for the agency.
The official, Ali Bahrami, was a vocal supporter of delegating authority. He would tell FAA staffers that Boeing knew the systems and the rules and that the company could handle the program, said one former employee in the office. Bahrami, who wasn’t at the agency during the certification of the 737 Max, declined to comment for this article.
The office, in the Seattle area, “defaulted” to Boeing – and didn’t answer to headquarters staff back in Washington either, said Mary Schiavo, a former inspector general for the Transportation Department. “They were a nation unto themselves, and basically they treated themselves as independent,” she said in an interview this week.
The FAA defended the delegation program, noting that similar approaches are also used by Canadian and European regulators. In a statement, the agency said certification of the 737 Max took about five years and that it received no complaints about pressure to speed the process. “FAA has never allowed companies to police themselves or self-certify their aircraft,” it said. “Delegation extends the rigor of the FAA certification process to other recognized professionals, thereby multiplying the technical expertise.”
Boeing says the designated representatives “participate in regular training and receive guidance and oversight from the FAA.”
Still, weeks after the Lion Air crash, the U.S. Transportation Department inspector general’s office obtained information that raised concerns about the 737 Max’s certification, according to people familiar with the matter.
An investigation initiated then by federal law-enforcement agents focuses on how Boeing won approval for stall-prevention software implicated in the crash, and why it wasn’t flagged in pilot manuals, Bloomberg News reported.
For Boeing, these are extraordinarily sensitive inquiries, casting doubt on both the aircraft that supplies a third of its profit, and its tight relationship with regulators. In recent years, Boeing’s variations on popular planes, including the 737 Max 8 and 9, and the 787-9 and 787-10, entered the market smoothly and on time, a rarity in the industry.
Boeing and its main rival, Airbus SE, have focused on upgrading existing airplanes with new engines, saving tens of billions of dollars that would be required to design them from scratch. They’ve successfully argued to regulators that planes like the Max and the Airbus A330neo are similar enough to older versions to share the same airworthiness certificate. Doing so narrows the scope of certification. It also saves money for customers by shortening pilot training.
In a statement Friday, Boeing stressed that “safety is our highest priority as we design, build and support our airplanes.”
In a decades-old system, the FAA lets engineers employed by manufacturers themselves oversee tests and vouch for safety. At Boeing, the work is monitored by the FAA certification office in the Seattle area, where most of the jetliners are designed and assembled.
The Transportation Department in turn oversees the FAA, and an audit in the 1990s found that 95 percent of the 777 was inspected and certified by Boeing itself, said Schiavo, the former inspector general. She’s now an aviation attorney and the author of a 1997 expose, “Flying Blind, Flying Safe,” contending the agency hasn’t done enough to protect travelers because of persistent conflicts of interest.
In 2005, the FAA shifted even more authority to manufacturers under an approach pushed by then-chief Marion Blakey, who later ran the Aerospace Industries Association, the industry’s main lobbyist. She insisted staff refer to airlines and aircraft makers as “customers” and billed the changes as a way to promote efficiency. Under the new rules, which took effect in 2009, the agency let Boeing pick the employees who would vouch for its safety. Previously, the company only nominated them.
Bahrami, now the FAA’s top safety official, is himself a former aircraft engineer. When he managed the agency’s Seattle office, Boeing was under enormous pressure to complete the 787 Dreamliner, which was billions of dollars over budget. Airbus had also startled Boeing by stealing customers with its updated A320neo, forcing Boeing into its own update: the 737 Max.
A big selling point for the Max was that pilots wouldn’t need to be drilled on its finer points in a flight simulator; it handled so similarly to a preceding generation of 737 that they could teach themselves via a take-home iPad course.
The Dreamliner won certification and entered service in 2011, three years late. At the same time, scrutiny of the shift in delegation to the company was mounting. The Transportation Department inspector general said in a report that year that the FAA “has not ensured engineers are adequately trained to perform their expanded enforcement responsibilities.”
The next year, a Transportation Department special investigator wrote to the FAA’s audit chief, telling him that employees in the office run by Bahrami had complained the agency wasn’t holding Boeing accountable. The memo detailed cases where people had told the investigator that managers were slow to address safety issues, and said many feared retaliation for speaking up.
In January 2013, after the Dreamliner had flown 52,000 hours with paying customers, the FAA grounded it when lithium-ion batteries on two planes caught fire within a week. It was the first time the agency had grounded a model since 1979. Boeing designed an FAA-approved fix and the planes were flying again within three months.
FAA managers including Bahrami were called before a National Transportation Safety Board hearing that April that laid bare the scope of the agency’s reliance on Boeing. The NTSB later found that a test of the battery’s flammability – driving a nail into it – was inadequate and faulted FAA for failing to catch the design deficiency.
Earlier, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees warned as early as seven years ago that Boeing Co. had too much sway over safety approvals of new aircraft, prompting an investigation by Department of Transportation auditors who confirmed the agency hadn’t done enough to “hold Boeing accountable.”
The 2012 investigation also found that discord over Boeing’s treatment had created a “negative work environment” among FAA employees who approve new and modified aircraft designs, with many of them saying they’d faced retaliation for speaking up. Their concerns pre-dated the 737 Max development.
A person familiar with the 737 Max said the Transportation Department’s Inspector General was examining the plane’s design certification before the second of two deadly crashes of the almost brand-new aircraft. Earlier Sunday, Ethiopia’s transport minister said flight-data recorders show “clear similarities” between the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10 and Lion Air Flight 610 last October.