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FAA analysis flagged 737 Max risks before fatal crash

FAA analysis warned of 737 Max risks after Lion Air crash

Boeing's troubled 737 Max will not take to the skies until U.S. regulators determine the aircraft is safe and pilots are fully versed in how to handle the aircraft grounded after two deadly crashes, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Stephen Dickson told lawmakers on Wednesday. 

Boeing hoped to get its MAX software changes certified by the end of the year, but Dickson said his agency has not set a date for clearing the plane for takeoff and isn't taking the manufacturer's preferences into account. 

Dickson's appearance coincided with the release of an internal FAA analysis that shed unflattering light on the agency's decision to let the 737 Max jet continue flying after its first fatal crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018. The FAA's internal review suggests the agency determined that, without design changes, the 737 Max could average a fatal crash every two to three years.

"Despite its own calculations, the FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public and let the 737 MAX continue to fly," Oregon Democrat Peter DeFazio, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, stated.

"Not delegating" to Boeing

The FAA will make sure that Boeing's top-selling model's return to the skies will be a safe one, Dickson insisted. But he said the agency, "is not delegating anything to Boeing. When the 737 Max returns to service, the safety issues will have been addressed and pilots will have all the training they need. I'm not going to sign off on this airplane until I fly it myself."

The 737 Max looks likely to remain grounded for months. Dickson told CNBC ahead of the hearing that the process to re-certify the 737 Max could go well into next year: "If you do the math, it's going to extend into 2020. We're going to do it diligently because safety is absolutely our priority with this airplane."

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The fifth such congressional hearing is taking place more than a year after a 737 Max crashed off the coast of Indonesia and more than nine months after a second crash in Ethiopia. In all, 346 people died in the crashes, which came within five months of one another. 

The aircraft was grounded worldwide last March, days after the second crash. Boeing a month ago said it hoped to get FAA clearance of its fixes to the 737 Max by the end of the year, but conceded that finishing new training mandates for pilots would push its top-selling aircraft's return to the skies into January.  

Whistleblower fears passengers still at risk

Lawmakers in the afternoon heard from Edward Pierson, a former Boeing manager at the 737 assembly plant in Renton, Washington, who expressed concerns in 2018 about the manufacturer's production practices. Pierson reiterated those concerns, citing employee fatigue, out-of-sequence work, communications breakdowns and scheduling pressure at the factory and saying the resulting decline in quality could endangers the flying public. 

Telling lawmakers he twice recommended shutting down the plant's line to give workers time to safely address a production backlog, Pierson said what he described as the factory's chaotic operations continues to worry him.

"I remain gravely concerned that the dysfunctional production conditions may have contributed to the tragic 737 MAX crashes, and that the flying public will remain at risk unless this unstable production environment is rigorously investigated and closely monitored by regulators on an ongoing basis," Pierson said.

Regulators appear to be solely focused on a software glitch in the craft's flight control system designed to correct flight anomalies when they occur, he said. Yet in both crashes, the initial trouble may have begun with sensors on the planes, an issue that could be related to their production, Pierson said.

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