SEATTLE — An internal Federal Aviation Administration analysis completed a month after the first crash of a Boeing 737 Max in Indonesia last fall estimated a high risk of further accidents.
That revelation drew urgent questions in Congress Wednesday as to why the Max was not grounded then, before the second crash in Ethiopia.
The FAA analysis projected that without action, the failure of the flight control system that had brought down Lion Air Flight 610 on Oct. 29 would result in about 15 more fatal crashes during the 45-year life of the 737 Max fleet worldwide.
That estimate built in an assumption that one flight crew out of 100 would fail to react effectively and cope with the emergency, even though it was known at the time that out of two Lion Air flights where the system went haywire, one of them ended in catastrophe.
The document, known as a Transport Airplane Risk Analysis, dated Dec. 3, 2018, was presented Wednesday at a U.S. House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee public hearing in which FAA Administrator Steve Dickson testified on the role of the FAA in the Max crashes.
Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., asked Dickson why the Max had not been grounded immediately after that analysis indicated such an unacceptably high risk.
“I am not aware of any other aircraft where this sort of analysis has found something that’s going to cause crashes inevitably and be allowed to fly. It just doesn’t meet your standards,” DeFazio said.
Dickson responded that the analysis was used as a tool to work out the timeframe in which action was needed, and that by then Boeing was already working on a software fix for the flight control system.
Earl Lawrence, executive director of the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service, added that because the agency had already issued an airworthiness directive informing pilots of the danger of the flight control system, and because Boeing was redesigning the faulty system, no additional action was taken after the analysis came up with the high risk assessment.
DeFazio said when he and Rep. Rick Larsen, the aviation subcommittee chair, met with FAA safety chief Ali Bahrami in February, before the second crash, Bahrami told them the Lion Air crash “was a one-off accident.”
“Yet this analysis was available at that time,” DeFazio said. “He (Bahrami) apparently says he was unaware of it.”
Members of the House committee recently questioned Bahrami privately for seven hours, DeFazio said, but the safety chief told them the analysis wasn’t brought to his attention.
The Max’s risk analysis, as well as other safety decisions made by FAA officials to overrule the agency’s own safety experts, raise concerns about Boeing’s influence on the FAA’s regional offices in Seattle, DeFazio said. He cited as examples the agency’s decisions to allow, over safety analysts’ objections, Boeing to remove 787 lighting protection measures and give the company a pass for complying with a safety requirement for the location of the 737 Max’s rudder cables.
“We may have a captive regulatory problem in the field offices, because it’s an awful lot of decisions that have been going in Boeing’s favor,” DeFazio told Dickson.