Two of the most powerful lawmakers on the House transportation committee demanded Thursday that the Federal Aviation Administration explain why some of its managers overruled the agency’s own safety experts during the development of Boeing’s 737 Max plane.
Representatives Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, who is the chairman of the committee, and Rick Larsen of Washington said in a letter to the agency that when F.A.A. employees raised concerns about a set of cables that help control the Max, they were sidelined by agency managers. The cables are part of a rudder system that is separate from the automated software that contributed to two fatal 737 Max accidents.
A New York Times investigation revealed in July that F.A.A. managers had sided with Boeing in a dispute over the cables, deciding not to require the company to change the system, citing the cost.
The letter also notes a different instance in which senior managers at the F.A.A. broke with their own employees’ assessment and allowed Boeing to remove lightning protection from part of the 787 Dreamliner.
The episodes suggest that “the F.A.A.’s safety and technical experts are being circumvented or sidelined while the interests of Boeing are being elevated by F.A.A. senior management,” Mr. DeFazio and Mr. Larsen wrote.
As the Max was being built, engineers at the F.A.A. who were responsible for approving the plane grew concerned about its new engines, which were bigger and more complex than on previous 737s. They worried that if the engines broke apart during a flight, there was a greater risk that the chunks would sever the cables, which control the plane’s rudder. The F.A.A. employees wanted the company to make changes to avoid a potentially catastrophic failure.
But Boeing resisted the change, arguing that it was highly unlikely that an engine would explode midair and damage the cables. Against the advice of six F.A.A. specialists, senior leaders at the regulator decided not to force the company to redesign the cables. An F.A.A. employee later submitted an anonymous complaint about the incident to a safety board inside the agency.
“During meetings regarding this issue the cost to Boeing to upgrade the design was discussed,” the engineer wrote in the complaint, which was reviewed by The Times. “The comment was made that there may be better places for Boeing to spend their safety dollars.”
In an email Thursday, an F.A.A. spokesman, Lynn Lunsford, said the agency would “respond directly to the chairmen.” A Boeing spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said in a statement that the issues in the letter were “properly considered and addressed by Boeing, thoroughly reviewed with and approved by the F.A.A., and handled in full compliance.”
The 737 Max, Boeing’s best-selling jet, has been grounded since March after two crashes killed 346 people. Boeing is still working to return the Max to the air. In the aftermath of the two accidents, the F.A.A. has come under scrutiny for its close ties to Boeing and its reliance on the company’s employees to determine the safety of new airplanes.
In the letter, the lawmakers also highlighted a second set of safety concerns. They wrote that F.A.A. employees had flagged Boeing’s decision to remove from the Dreamliner’s wings copper foil designed to protect against lightning strikes.
F.A.A. engineers worried that the change might increase the risk of a fuel tank explosion midair. The agency rejected the new design in February, but by then Boeing had already produced dozens of Dreamliners without the foil on the wings, according to the letter.
The fact that Boeing changed the design before it was approved by the F.A.A. demonstrates “either willful neglect of the federal aviation regulatory structure or an oversight system in need of desperate repair,” the lawmakers wrote.
A Boeing employee said the company had discussed the issue with Ali Bahrami, the F.A.A.’s head of safety, according to the letter. Mr. Bahrami previously worked as an industry lobbyist for a trade group that represents Boeing. On March 1, the F.A.A. reversed course, and accepted the new design.
Last month, the regulator asked Boeing to submit more documentation demonstrating the safety of the new design. The lawmakers criticized the regulator’s actions as “woefully inadequate to ensure the safety of the flying public.”
Taken together, the lawmakers said, the incidents “raise questions about how the agency weighs the validity of safety issues raised by its own experts compared to objections raised by the aircraft manufacturers the F.A.A. is supposed to oversee.”
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