By Andy Pasztor
U.S. aviation officials face courtroom challenges regarding the
confidentiality of Boeing Co. documents detailing safety fixes to
the company's 737 MAX jets.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the Justice Department
have told a federal judge the public isn't entitled to see
thousands of pages of such company documents. A passenger-advocacy
group is stepping up legal maneuvers objecting to those
The legal skirmishes in Washington, D.C., district court come in
the wake of comments last week by FAA chief Steve Dickson,
emphasizing the agency's transparency in permitting the MAX fleet
back in the air. The court papers, however, illustrate formidable
obstacles to public access to underlying Boeing technical reports
Two crashes in less than five months took 346 lives and sparked
a 20-month global grounding of MAX jets. The documents at
issue-including safety analyses, engineering studies and
flight-test procedures and results-were prepared by Boeing and then
provided to the FAA as part of the effort to return the fleet to
Flyers Rights Education Fund, a national passenger-advocacy
group, filed a lawsuit in October 2019 seeking access to some
10,000 pages of Boeing documents intended to demonstrate the safety
of proposed hardware and software fixes.
In its filings, Flyers Rights has argued that keeping Boeing's
information from the public violates the law and contradicts the
FAA's assertions about transparency. After repeatedly making
pledges to be open about its decision making, the filings assert,
FAA leaders instead opted "to hide from the public the minimum
information needed to understand what happened" to prompt the FAA
to move toward rescinding its grounding order.
Flyers Rights is asking for a swift ruling on its arguments.
Boeing, which is not a party to the lawsuit seeking documents,
declined to comment.
The Justice Department's latest filing last Wednesday asserts
that Boeing's engineering and safety analyses largely consist of
proprietary information that is strictly exempt from public release
under freedom-of-information statutes. The FAA, according to the
filings, previously "provided Boeing both implicit and explicit
assurances that it would treat the disputed information as
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's office for Washington,
D.C., declined to comment.
The government also has argued, without elaborating, that
releasing the disputed documents could chill future communications
between the FAA and plane makers.
Last week's filing coincided with a press conference by Mr.
Dickson about the safety of the MAX. The FAA chief told reporters
on Wednesday that the agency's process in approving the fixes "has
been extremely transparent, it's been open and collaborative" with
outside experts and regulators. "I'm proud of that," he added.
The filing also indicated that when the plane maker first
provided many of the documents to the FAA, the transmittal letters
for each submission said they were turned over on a confidential
Boeing also expected that in general, the FAA wouldn't
permanently retain any company-generated documents submitted to
support certification of new aircraft or vetting of existing models
such as the MAX, according to government filings.
The company's transmittal letters, according to the filings and
a sworn written statement from a Boeing employee filed by the
government, explicitly laid out that "the data provided should be
returned to Boeing immediately following use by the FAA, including
According to the government, Boeing's letters also said the
company "does not authorize the FAA to retain any portion of the
The FAA for months has been embroiled in controversy over its
efforts to safeguard the confidentiality of MAX safety
In recent weeks, nearly 1,000 relatives and friends of
passengers who perished when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302
nosedived shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa wrote a letter
demanding that the FAA release additional information about the
plane's original certification and safety.
The group also sent a separate letter urging the U.S. National
Transportation Safety Board to release some of the same
An NTSB spokesman has said the board is restricted from
releasing material until the end of ongoing probes delving into MAX
Throughout the process, the FAA has argued it released a large
volume of information, including outside studies and
recommendations. But Boeing's original reports and data, the agency
has maintained, must remain off limits to the public due to
longstanding legal restrictions and agency practices. Congressional
investigators have gathered, but not publicly released, some of the
underlying Boeing documents, according to people familiar with the
As part of a different lawsuit pending in federal district court
in Chicago, lawyers representing many of the Ethiopian crash
victims got a big boost on Monday in their efforts to obtain Boeing
documents. Rejecting most of Boeing's objections, a magistrate
ordered the plane maker to turn over extensive internal documents
related to development of the MAX, including safety data, details
of board deliberations and personnel actions stemming from the
Write to Andy Pasztor at Andy.Pasztor@WSJ.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
November 24, 2020 13:59 ET (18:59 GMT)
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