In a bid to reassure the public that Boeing has fixed the problems with its disastrous 737 Max line of passenger jets, Federal Aviation Administration chief Steve Dickson will personally get behind the controls for a test flight next week, according to Bloomberg.
Every 737 Max jet in operation was grounded last year after two separate flights, Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, crashed and killed a total of 346 people. Boeing has since admitted that the crashes were related to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, a system installed to compensate for the plane’s heavy engines that relied on a single angle-of-attack sensor, which determines whether the plane has enough lift to keep flying. MCAS could trigger due to erroneous angle of attack readings and send a plane into a dive. A correctly trained pilot could correct for this, but series of abrupt MCAS design changes that Boeing left out of the manual, a failure to adequately notify pilots of how the system worked, and cascading errors from a faulty sensor likely all contributed to the crashes. The company also vetoed adding a failsafe synthetic airspeed system, which might have alerted pilots to the original sensor issue.
House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure investigators have since determined that the disasters were caused by Boeing’s “extensive efforts to cut costs, maintain the 737 MAX program schedule, and avoid slowing the 737 MAX production line.” They also lambasted the FAA for approving Boeing’s risky design systems, writing, “Excessive FAA delegation of certification functions to Boeing on the 737 MAX eroded FAA’s oversight effectiveness and the safety of the public.”
The committee added that it had discovered “sweeping and systemic problems revolving around the ability of the FAA to effectively engage in regulatory activity,” such as delegating responsibilities to industry officials with inherent conflicts of interest. In other words, the FAA and Boeing’s relationship was a textbook example of regulatory capture, in which a revolving door between industry and regulators ensures little regulating is actually done. In June, members of the Senate Commerce Committee accused Dickson of stonewalling congressional investigations into the Boeing 737 Max and the manufacturer’s cozy relationship with the agency by withholding documents.
Boeing has been seeking to get the 737 Max line back in the air with changes to prevent MCAS from activating repeatedly or malfunctioning, as well as an upgraded flight control system. It needs the FAA’s approval for the planes to return to service, and Dickson has stated in the past he would personally fly one of the jets before any decision was made. CNBC reported the FAA told lawmakers the flight will be conducted next week, after Dickson undergoes a simulator training course with his deputy, Daniel Elwell.
Per a separate report by Bloomberg earlier this week, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association labor union, which represents FAA certification engineers, submitted comments on Boeing’s redesign proposal arguing that the changes wouldn’t fix the single point of failure issue and don’t make enough improvement to the cockpit alerting system. NATCA added that the new design “does not comply” with FAA regulations.