By Andy Pasztor 

Safety fixes after the first Boeing Co. 737 MAX crash became snarled in Federal Aviation Administration delays and repetitive analyses, wasting any chance U.S. regulators had to prevent the second fatal accident, according to an investigation by the Transportation Department's internal watchdog.

The 52-page report released Wednesday reiterated previously known lapse by the FAA and Boeing during initial safety approval of the MAX, but it also raised additional questions about the seeming lack of urgency both sides displayed during the five months between the two crashes to develop and implement a safety fix covering the entire fleet.

After the first MAX crash in October 2018, it took the FAA four months just to agree on a timetable for implementing fixes once they were devised, according to the report by the DOT inspector general.

The narrative released Wednesday also revealed that FAA officials spent months conducting an inconclusive internal review of problems with the plane's original certification. Launched in January 2019, the review became bogged down in bureaucratic procedures, wasn't finished and eventually was abandoned when a second MAX went down that March, according to the inspector general.

The inspector general's report provides fresh ammunition for FAA critics in Congress who argue agency officials wasted their chance to act swiftly and decisively to prevent the second, similar MAX crash that occurred less than five months later.

An FAA spokesman declined to comment.

The document offers new insights about precisely how long it took the FAA to chart a course to deal with safety problems after Lion Air Flight 610 nosedived into the Java Sea in autumn 2018. The inspector general also lays out, in more detail than previous reports, the agency's subsequent halting progress coming to grips with the MAX fleet's hazards in the period that ended with the fatal crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019.

A Boeing spokesman said that since the accidents, "we have made substantial changes within our company to further enhance our commitment to safety." The company, the spokesman continued, has pledged "transparency with the FAA during all aspects of the airplane-certification process."

The latest scrutiny adds yet more voices to the extensive chorus of U.S. lawmakers and global safety experts who have pinpointed Boeing's failures, extending back to the development of the MAX, to provide timely and accurate information about an automated flight-control feature known as MCAS. Misfires of that system led to both crashes, which took a total of 346 lives and plunged Boeing into what was then the worst crisis in its 100-plus year history, until the Covid-19 pandemic.

The report doesn't offer recommendations. In a formal response to the inspector general's report, Steven Bradbury, the DOT's general counsel, wrote that it revealed "some strengths in FAA's aircraft certification process, as well as areas for improvement."

Safety vetting of the MAX before its 2017 introduction into service, according to Mr. Bradbury's memo, which was attached to the report, "was hampered by a lack of effective communication, both between Boeing and FAA and within FAA," resulting in the agency receiving incomplete information about MCAS hazards before approving the plane for passenger service.

The report indicates the FAA didn't finish its official assessment of safety hazards posed by the MAX fleet until Dec. 12, 2018, almost two full months after the Lion Air crash. But according to the inspector general, it wasn't until the second week in January that the agency for the first time "performed its own detailed analysis of MCAS."

That January date, several FAA engineers told the inspector general's staff, also was the "first time that they were presented with a full picture of how MCAS worked."

Then it took another month, until the middle of February, for the FAA and Boeing to agree on a schedule for implementing fixes to MCAS's problematic software.

The FAA's internal review of what went wrong with the initial certification process was still in draft form when the Ethiopian jet crashed in March and the 737 MAX fleet was grounded globally. At that point, according to the inspector general, the agency shelved the document because it had been "overtaken by events."

The inspector general's timeline conflicts with what high-ranking Boeing engineers and other company officials told some airline pilots in late 2018 about the expected speed of the pending fixes. At the end of November 2018, company representatives told leaders of the pilot union at American Airlines Group Inc. that "relatively straightforward software changes" to MCAS were slated to be released in a company bulletin in roughly six weeks, or about mid-January, according to an audio recording of the meeting that was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

By the time the January target had passed, according to the inspector general, the FAA and Boeing didn't expect the software fix to be ready until April 2019. Now, after more than a year of additional delays and expanded scrutiny of other flight-computer and cockpit-alert features, besides MCAS, software and hardware fixes to the MAX fleet are expected to be approved by this autumn.

Wednesday's report goes beyond earlier findings released in March of this year by Democrats on the House Transportation Committee, which pinpointed some squandered opportunities by the FAA to prevent the second crash. The committee's report said that in December 2018, agency officials "received a briefing from Boeing that should have raised additional red flags" about the thoroughness of the plane maker's initial safety assessments regarding MCAS hazards.

On Wednesday, Rep. Peter DeFazio of Oregon, the Democratic chairman of the House transportation panel, issued a news release saying "the more scrutiny we put on Boeing and the FAA, and the more we dig into why and how the system failed so horribly," the better chance "we have of fixing the system to ensure no family has to endure this nightmare again."

--Alison Sider contributed to this article.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 01, 2020 17:51 ET (21:51 GMT)

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