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National Transportation Safety Board: Boeing Made Faulty Assumptions Designing 737 Max


Federal safety officials leveled sharp criticism today at both Boeing and the FAA. The National Transportation Safety Board says Boeing made faulty assumptions in designing the 737 Max and that the FAA signed off on them. The 737 Max has not flown passengers for months now after two fatal crashes in which hundreds of people died.

NPR's transportation correspondent David Schaper is with us now. David, I want to break this down one by one. What did the NTSB find that Boeing did wrong?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Well, you may recall, Audie, that in both crashes, an automated flight control system called MCAS put the planes into uncontrollable nosedives. The NTSB found that, in designing this system, Boeing made erroneous assumptions about how the pilots would react to such sudden and multiple failures. The cockpit would have been chaotic, with the pilots bombarded with multiple alerts blaring and the control stick shaking.

The NTSB says Boeing underestimated how long it would take for the pilots to figure out what was going on and take action. Here's NTSB Chairman Robert Sumwalt, who himself is a retired 737 pilot.

ROBERT SUMWALT: When there's a malfunction or a distraction in the cockpit, sometimes, flight crews can really get focused on dealing with that particular malfunction at the expense of basic aircraft control.

SCHAPER: So keep in mind that in the first crash - the Lion Air crash in Indonesia last October - the pilots didn't even know the MCAS system existed because Boeing never told anybody about it. And it activated and took over control of the plane without them really realizing what was going on.

CORNISH: I want to move on to the FAA. How does the safety board talk about the federal regulators?

SCHAPER: Well, Boeing sources told me that they designed and developed the 737 Max according to FAA standards. And in regards to this MCAS system, they took into account standard and accepted FAA assumptions. So the NTSB says the FAA needs to change those assumptions.

There have been allegations that the FAA relied too heavily on Boeing and its engineers when doing its safety analysis of the Max without addressing those allegations and concerns directly. Sumwalt told me that there was a failure of oversight here.

SUMWALT: There were gaps. There were holes in the safety net, and that's what we intend to fill.

CORNISH: Intend to fill - David, what does that mean?

SCHAPER: Well, the NTSB makes recommendations. It doesn't actually make the policy that comes from the FAA. So the NTSB is recommending that the FAA put in place new standards. They want - when evaluating systems like this, the FAA - to take into account the impact that multiple system failures would have at once, the effect of many cockpit alerts going off all at the same time and how that might affect the pilot's response. You know, one NTSB official says that this scenario is actually never tested.

Furthermore, you know, one of the things that people are talking about all across the commercial aviation world is that airplane manufacturers and regulators need to better take into account the rapid growth of the commercial aviation market all over the world and the changing demographics of pilots and the different levels of education or training and even cultural differences that they may have and how that might affect how they would respond in a crisis.

CORNISH: In the meantime, the 737 Max jet - are people going to fly on that again?

SCHAPER: Well, it remains grounded by authorities around the world. Boeing continues to work on a fix to the software of the Max, too. They keep saying it's really close to getting it ready. And the FAA suggests it's pretty close to scheduling a test flight. But it still seems like it's several months off before we may see any of these planes flying passengers again.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Schaper.

Thank you.

SCHAPER: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF DIGITALISM'S "MIRAGE, PT. 1") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper
David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.