Boeing official confronted by pilots over 737 MAX changes before second fatal crash, audio reveals

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The acting chief of the Federal Aviation Administration has defended his agency’s safety certification of the Boeing 737 MAX jetliner, as new audio reveals pilots confronted the company about its automated flight-control system just months before a second deadly plane crash.

Key points:

  • American Airlines pilots tells a Boeing official nobody knew about the automated flight-control system changes
  • The Federal Aviation Administration concedes pilots could have been better informed
  • Boeing is currently updating the system and could complete its work in the coming weeks

The meeting between American Airlines pilots and Boeing took place in November 2018 — just weeks after a Lion Air crash in Indonesia, and four months before an Ethiopian Airlines jet plummeted after take-off, killing at least 157 on board.

Investigations into the crashes have focused on the automated flight-control system, MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System), that came into service two years ago with the MAX.

The system pushes the plane down if it detects a sharp vertical climb that could risk stalling the plane.

In audio obtained by CBS, the pilots are heard quizzing an unidentified Boeing official about the software changes.

“We flat-out deserve to know what is on our airplanes,” one pilot says, to which the official replies: “I don’t disagree”.

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“These guys didn’t even know the damn system was on the airplane,” the pilot continues, referring to the Lion Air crash: “Nor did anybody else”.

The Boeing official then tells the pilots that he was not convinced understanding the system “would have changed the outcome of this”.

“In a million miles you’re going to maybe fly this airplane, and maybe once you’re going to see this ever,” he said.

Pilots have previously slammed Boeing for not alerting them to the inclusion of the system in newer models after the 737 MAX’s introduction.

FAA defends decision not to ground jet sooner

During a congressional hearing Wednesday, Daniel Elwell — the acting chief of the United States Federal Aviation Administration — defended his agency’s decision not to ground the jet until other regulators around the world had already done so.

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However, he conceded pilots could have been better informed about the automated flight-control system implicated in both crashes.

“[I] thought that the MCAS should have been more adequately explained in the ops manual and the flight manual,” Mr Elwell said.

During the two-hour questioning by the House aviation subcommittee, politicians pressed Mr Elwell on the FAA’s reliance on designated Boeing employees during the planes’ certification process.

“The FAA has a credibility problem,” declared the subcommittee chairman, Rick Larsen.

Boeing is currently updating the automated flight-control system, and Mr Elwell said he expected the company to complete its work “in the next week or so,” after which the FAA will analyse the software changes and conduct test flights.

“In the US, the 737 MAX will return to service only when the FAA’s analysis of the facts and technical data indicate that it is safe to do so,” he said.

Nadia Milleron, whose daughter, Samya Stumo, was on the Ethiopian Airlines plane, was in the audience at Wednesday’s hearing.

She said the FAA appeared to be rushing to approve Boeing’s fixes to the MAX even before the accident investigations were finished — something that could take many months.

“It is possible that these planes should never go back in the air,” she said.

Michael Stumo and Nadia Milleron, right, parents of Samya Stumo, who died in the Ethiopian plane crash.