FAA Overruled Engineers on Boeing 737 Max Grounding, DOT Watchdog Says

Engineers noticed accident similarities and urged immediate grounding, but were ultimately overruled.

The FAA certified the 737 Max in 2017. [Courtesy: Boeing]

The FAA ignored its own engineers’ recommendations to ground the Boeing 737 Max following two deadly accidents, according to a new agency watchdog report.

The Department Office of Inspector General issued the report on Friday, writing that its “audit objective was to evaluate FAA’s processes and procedures for grounding aircraft and implementing corrective actions.”

The report noted that engineers noticed similarities between both Max accidents and urged immediate grounding but were ultimately overruled by top FAA officials who wanted to sort out raw data first.

"Our review of emails and interviews of FAA officials revealed that individual engineers at the Seattle ACO (aircraft certification office) recommended grounding the airplane while the accident was being investigated based on what they perceived as similarities between the accidents," the report said. "Yet Agency officials at Headquarters and the Seattle ACO opted not to do so; instead, they waited for more detailed data to arrive."

The office of the inspector general interviewed FAA leaders and reviewed emails. It found that FAA officials "expressed frustration that foreign civil aviation authorities were grounding the aircraft before they had data that linked the two accidents."

According to the report, one engineer estimated the chance of another Max accident was 13 times greater than FAA risk guidelines allow. The analysis suggested “there was a 25 percent chance of an accident in 60 days” if no changes were made to the aircraft. However, that analysis was never completed and “did not go through managerial review due to lack of detailed flight data.”

It wasn’t until three days after the last crash that the FAA issued a ground stop—making the aviation regulator the last in the world to do so. The two accidents—a Lion Air flight in October 2018 and an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March 2019 resulted in the deaths of 346 people. Both crashes were the result of a single malfunctioning sensor that triggered the automated MCAS (maneuvering characteristics augmentation system).

The 737 Max was grounded for nearly two years before the FAA issued its return to service after Boeing made software upgrades and training changes. Lawmakers also passed legislation reforming aircraft certification.

The inspector general report concluded that the FAA’s decision to wait for more data before grounding the max aligned with its typical process but called the process “outdated." The report outlined seven recommendations for the FAA to improve its process of risk assessment, including its policies for analyzing crashes.

“As we incorporate these recommendations, we also continue to look for additional opportunities to apply lessons learned from the Boeing 737 Max’s return to service,” noted the FAA.

The agency said it would complete all seven recommendations by March 2025.

Amelia Walsh
Amelia WalshContributor
Amelia Walsh is a private pilot who enjoys flying her family’s Columbia 350. She is based in Colorado and loves all things outdoors including skiing, hiking, and camping.

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