In its report of September 27, 2019 the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”), although acknowledging the need for Boeing to “fine tune” its technology to prevent the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”) from automatically repeating and sending a plane into uncontrolled dives, NTSB focused more on pilots “confusion” in responding to multiple alarms caused by the malfunction in the MCAS system control sensors. NTSB then followed up by issuing seven recommendations calling on the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to update how it assumes pilots will react in emergencies and make aircraft more “intuitive” when things go wrong, in an effort to ensure that “average pilots” can respond to complex emergencies.

The Joint Authorities Technical Review Panel, made up of experts from the FAA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (“NASA”) and nine other regulatory agencies from around the world, in its report of October 12, 2019 (“Joint Authorities Report”), reached a dramatically different conclusion. It instead took FAA to task for failing to follow its own rules, using out of date procedures, and lacking the expertise to fully explore the design changes for the aircraft implicated in the two crashes.


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In a June 19, 2019 hearing of the United States House of Representatives Subcommittee on Aviation, representatives of pilots’ organizations directly involved in, and affected by, the structural issues identified in the Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft, that caused the tragic deaths of 346 passengers, called The Boeing Company (“Boeing”), and its federal regulatory partner, the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to account in no uncertain terms.

Daniel Carey, a 35 year career American Airlines Captain, and President of the Allied Pilots Association (“APA”), testified as to what pilots regard as the fundamental issues with oversight by FAA.

Carey opines that the disasters arose from two fundamental problems: (1) the addition of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”) without additional training, or even notification to pilots of its existence; and (2) failure of the requisite oversight by FAA. First, in an effort “to minimize the operating costs to Boeings customers by allowing the Max to be certified by FAA as a 737,” rather than requiring additional procedures that might be required for a substantial variation from the original 737 design, “this lead Boeing’s engineers to add the MCAS system.” Also according to Carey, many additional mistakes were subsequently made by Boeing engineers.


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In a March 27, 2019 appearance before the Senate Subcommittee on Aviation and Space, Daniel K. Elwell, Acting Administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) sought to clarify the FAA’s role in the certification of the safety of aircraft systems. In doing so, he emphasized that the principal responsibility for safety lies with the aircraft manufacturers, with FAA performing merely a review function to determine “if the applicant [for certification] has shown that the overall design meets the safety standards. We do that by reviewing data and by conducting risk based evaluations of the applicant’s work,” Statement of Administrator, before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, Subcommittee on Aviation and Space on the State of Airline Safety: Federal Oversight of Commercial Aviation, March 27, 2019 (“Statement”). The problem with this explanation may not be the adopted approach, but the lapses in FAA’s realization of its part of the bargain.

In the opening discussion of the safety certification system’s underlying philosophy, the Acting Administrator explained that “the FAA focuses its efforts on areas that present the highest risk within the system . . .,” Statement, p. 3, with FAA purportedly “involved in testing and certification of new and novel features and technologies,” Statement, p. 5, a category within which the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (“MCAS”), thought to be a cause of the recent accidents in Ethiopia and Malaysia is included. In fact, as discussed in a comprehensive article of March 17, 2019, “Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing, FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system,” posted in the Seattle Times by Dominic Gates, the Seattle Times Aerospace reporter (“Seattle Times Article”), Boeing’s “system safety analysis” of the MCAS:

  • Understated the power of the new flight control system, which was designed to swivel the horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall. When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times farther than was stated in the initial safety analysis document.

  • Failed to account for how the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the airplane’s nose downward.

  • Assessed a failure of the system as one level below “catastrophic.” But even that “hazardous” danger level should have precluded activation of the system based on input from a single sensor — and yet that’s how it was designed.

Nevertheless, the Acting Administrator goes on to divest FAA of responsibility.


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In recent months, since the tragic crashes of two Boeing 737-Max aircraft in disparate areas of the globe, both the public and the press have expressed surprise at the finding that the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) was delegating to the aircraft manufacturing industry the principal responsibility for formal certification of aircraft safety. They shouldn’t have been so surprised.

The press consistently blames “agency capture,” the process by which federal agencies purportedly develop cooperative, and even symbiotic, relationships with the industries they are tasked with regulating. In fact, in this instance, it was the United States Congress, in Section 312 of the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 (“FMRA”), that opened the door to the now questioned delegation of authority over aircraft safety.


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Within hours after FAA’s grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max 8 and 9 aircraft, pilots and aviation experts began to weigh in on the rationale. The first in the chorus was the Acting Administrator, Daniel Elwell, who opined that, in the face of the immediate action to ground the aircraft taken by European aviation authorities, as well as the increasing public outcry, the FAA had discovered “new evidence” from the site of the recent deadly airline crash in Ethiopia that justified defiance of the aeronautical industry urging a more measured approach.

Specifically, the Acting Administrator, in an interview with CNBC, stated that information made available since March 13 verified that the Ethiopian airline’s flight track “was close enough to the track of the Lion Air flight” that had crashed in Indonesia in October 2018 “to warrant the grounding of the airplanes so that we could get more information from the black boxes and determine if there is a link between the two, and, if there is, to find a fix to that link.” Ultimately, the agency concluded “the full track of the Ethiopian flight was very close to Lion Air,” and, thus, justified the grounding. The remaining question of what potentially caused the similar fatal incidence was, however, left up to other aviation experts.


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