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'Seattle Times' Questions Certification Process Of Boeing's 737 Max


United States officials commonly say this country sets the gold standard for aviation safety, so how did an apparent problem with Boeing planes elude the notice of safety inspectors? The Seattle Times, we now know, was posing that question even before the second of two crashes of Boeing planes. The local paper in a city where Boeing has big facilities examined interactions between Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration.

The FAA inspects airplane makers for safety concerns, but it works in close collaboration with the companies. And when it comes to the safety of the 737 MAX planes, the Times found documents showing that the FAA told engineers to delegate wide responsibility to the company itself. And some engineers identified flaws in the safety analysis. The investigation was done by Dominic Gates. He's an aerospace reporter for The Seattle Times, and he's on the line. Good morning, sir.

DOMINIC GATES: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So how would it come to be that the FAA would tell Boeing, in effect, inspect yourself?

GATES: Well, people may be surprised to hear it, but, in fact, that's the norm. For years now, the FAA, with lack of funding and resources, has delegated increasing amounts of this work to industry. And when it comes to certifying new airplanes, that means to Boeing. The FAA, of course, is supposed to have final sign-off on everything. But I talked to one engineer who was involved in the certification of the MAX - told me that there wasn't complete and proper review of the documents. Review was rushed to reach certain certification dates.

INSKEEP: And the document that you were looking at - does it show that engineers had real safety concerns a long time ago about this specific system?

GATES: No, that document doesn't express their - it's the analysis that went into certification. The feedback I got from safety engineers was that they weren't happy with certain aspects of that analysis that was - that, in the end, was signed off. For example, it allowed that the system would be triggered by a single sensor on the side of the fuselage called the angle of attack sensor. That was faulty on the Lion airplane, and it triggered the whole system. And that's, we believe, what caused the Lion Air crash.

INSKEEP: I want to understand something here, Dominic, because you say in your story that you first alerted Boeing to the things you discovered 11 days ago. That was before the second crash. You're telling me that even if Boeing didn't know internally on its own of these issues, you told them about it before the second crash. Is that right?

GATES: Well, Steve, you have to understand I wasn't telling Boeing anything they didn't know. It was just part of my normal journalistic practice. Eleven days ago, four days before the second crash, I told them everything that was going to be in my story, and I asked for a response. I asked for their input. What do you want to say about this? But Boeing knew all those things. The three flaws that are identified in my story, Boeing is - has been working on a software fix for this system since the Lion Air crash.

And last week, they - the FAA detailed to people in Congress on the aviation subcommittees what the fix is. And they told us what it'll do. It's going to change the system so it won't depend on one sensor. It'll depend on two. It won't move the horizontal tail as much so it won't push the nose down quite so far. And it'll kick in for only one cycle, not multiple times. These are exactly the three things that - the three flaws that my story points out. So Boeing basically is trying to fix that now. They were working on it before the Ethiopian crash. And they've told us that they're hoping to have it ready by next month at the latest.

INSKEEP: And yet, the FAA, with Boeing's input, was insisting the plane was safe for quite some time after other authorities decided otherwise.

GATES: Well, Boeing's position after the first crash was that the pilot should've been able to handle it, and they stuck to that. But obviously, when the second crash happened - and it now looks like it may have been a similar event - with that second event, there was no question that they needed to be grounded once they - once it was clear that the cause looked similar.

INSKEEP: Dominic Gates of The Seattle Times. Thanks for your reporting.

GATES: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.