In 2016, as Boeing raced to get the 737 Max certified by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), a senior company engineer whose job was to act on behalf of the FAA balked at Boeing management demands for less stringent testing of the fire-suppression system around the jet’s new LEAP engines.
That June he convened a meeting of all the certification engineers in his unit, who collectively agreed with his assessment. Management initially rejected their position, and only after another senior engineer from outside the Max program intervened did managers finally agree to beef up the testing to a level the engineer could accept, according to two people familiar with the matter.
But his insistence on a higher level of safety scrutiny cost Boeing time and money.
Less than a month after his peers had backed him, Boeing abruptly removed him from the program even before conducting the testing he’d advocated.
The episode underscores what The Seattle Times found after a review of documents and interviews with more than a dozen current and former Boeing engineers who have been involved in airplane certification in recent years, including on the 737 Max: Many engineers, employed by Boeing while officially designated to be the FAA’s eyes and ears, faced heavy pressure from Boeing managers to limit safety analysis and testing so the company could meet its schedule and keep down costs.
That pressure increased when the FAA stopped dealing directly with those designated employees – called “Authorized Representatives” or ARs – and let Boeing managers determine what was presented to the regulatory agency.
“The ARs have nobody supporting them. Nobody has their backs,” said one former Authorized Representative who worked on the 737 Max and who provided details of the engineer’s removal from the program. “The system is absolutely broken.”
FAA-designated oversight engineers are supposed to enjoy protection from management pressure. Removing one who proves a stickler for safety regulations will inevitably produce a chilling effect on others who see the consequences of being too rigid about safety concerns, said John Goglia, former member of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).
“It negates the whole system,” said Goglia. “The FAA should have come down on that really hard.”
Following two deadly 737 Max crashes off the coast of Indonesia and in Ethiopia that killed 346 people, and the subsequent grounding of the airplane worldwide, the certification of the jet has come under intense scrutiny, including a slew of lawsuits, congressional hearings and a criminal investigation.
None of the people interviewed were involved in certifying the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, the flight-control software implicated in the two crashes. But one area of scrutiny is sure to be the delegated system under which Boeing employees, paid by the company but acting as FAA designees, did the detailed certification work. It may slow down plans by the FAA and Boeing for a future certification regimen that would further erode the FAA’s oversight.
Boeing, in a statement responding to Seattle Times questions, said that FAA procedures, including regular, FAA-mandated training, “ensure Boeing employees serving in this capacity act independently on behalf of the FAA.”
It added that “there are processes in place to carefully evaluate any concerns regarding the AR’s ability to act independently.” The company declined to comment on individual cases cited in this story.
Yet as the FAA has increasingly delegated certification tasks to Boeing itself, it’s also made changes to the reporting structure that leave its designees to fend for themselves inside the company.
While a few former employees involved in certifications said they handled the pressure as a regular part of the job, others described the work environment as hostile, focused on achieving FAA approval within schedule and cost targets. Some of those workers spoke on condition of anonymity to protect professional relationships or for fear of retribution.
This echoes the findings of a Seattle Times investigation in March of what happened on the FAA side of the Max certification. Within the FAA, its safety engineers worked under constant pressure from their managers to delegate more and more work to Boeing itself, and to speedily approve the safety assessments the Boeing designees came up with.
On the Boeing side of that process, the removal of the senior engineer acting as an FAA Authorized Rep was an extreme example that highlights the broader negative impact of two changes: The FAA no longer appoints its own ARs, instead leaving that to Boeing. And these designees now rarely interact with the FAA directly, according to former Boeing ARs interviewed by The Times.
They said these changes have stripped them of protection and given managers more opportunity to push for shortcuts.
In a statement, the FAA said it oversees the Boeing certification system “to ensure procedures are followed.” The agency also said it has “received no whistleblower complaints or any other reports … alleging pressure to speed up 737 Max certification.”
Boeing managers are supposed to undergo “undue pressure” training to ensure that they aren’t crossing boundaries with the FAA’s representatives. And some ARs said that, despite some tensions, their managers were respectful of the role.
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