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A new investigative report finds Boeing withheld key details about its troubled 737 Max from federal regulators. The Department of Transportation's inspector general says the airplane manufacturer failed to disclose critical changes it made to a key flight control system. That system was later faulted in two plane crashes that killed 346 people. NPR's David Schaper reports.
DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: In the plane crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, an automated flight control system called MCAS activated based on erroneous information from a single sensor and repeatedly forced the planes into nosedives that the pilots could not pull out of. The DOT inspector general looked into how the FAA could certify a plane with such a powerful but flawed system with a single point of failure. The answer - the FAA engineer certifying the plane didn't really know about it.
CHRISTINE NEGRONI: The report says, in black and white, that Boeing's intention to dissemble and deceive the FAA began as far back as 2013.
SCHAPER: That's Christine Negroni, an aviation analyst and author of a book on plane crash investigations called "The Crash Detectives." She says the IG investigation uncovered evidence that in 2013, Boeing told the FAA the new system was only a slight modification of an old one. And when the company later made significant changes to the MCAS system, they failed to disclose those changes to the FAA.
NEGRONI: And that's just, you know, as baldfaced a deception or bamboozle as there can be.
SCHAPER: Documents released in this and other investigations show Boeing did this to move the plane more quickly through the certification process. Peter DeFazio chairs the House Transportation Committee, which is conducting its own investigation of the 737 Max.
PETER DEFAZIO: We have evidence from this - you know, from emails that - as far back as 2013. They said, if the FAA knows about this or anybody else knows about this, it could trigger recertification, or it could trigger pilot retraining requirements. And our bonuses are at risk if we do that.
SCHAPER: The latest report also faults the FAA for poor communication, both internally and with Boeing. It notes that changes in federal law allowed regulators to turn over 87% of the work in certifying the 737 Max to the manufacturer it is supposed to watch over. Again, Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio.
DEFAZIO: This shows a flaw in the process, and the IG confirms that. The FAA needs better oversight.
SCHAPER: DeFazio's committee is working on legislation to provide that better oversight, and a bipartisan Senate bill has already been introduced. The FAA declined to comment beyond the department's response that is attached to the inspector general's report, which says the review will help the FAA better understand some of the factors that may have contributed to the crashes and ensure these types of accidents never occur again.
In a statement, Boeing says the company is committed to transparency with the FAA during all aspects of the airplane certification process. The company has made improvements to the 737 Max flight control software and contends when the Max returns to service, it will be one of the most thoroughly scrutinized aircraft in history. After more than a year of setbacks and delay, this week, Boeing and the FAA are conducting 737 Max test flights, a critical step toward recertifying the plane and allowing airlines to use it to fly passengers again.
David Schaper, NPR News.
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