Last week, Boeing abruptly released transcripts of pilot instant messages during the 2016 737 Max simulator tests involving the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). That system apparently played a pivotal role in the two fatal crashes. In one transcript, a pilot recounts a difficult simulator trial, concluding that the handling performance was “egregious.”
The FAA was not amused that the transcripts were not released earlier, as Boeing apparently discovered them months ago. In fact, Boeing turned them over to the Justice Department in February but didn’t share them with the FAA. This was because, according to a Bloomberg source, the FAA was also a target of the Justice Department’s criminal probe.
The transcripts were in the hands of the Justice Department before the second fatal crash.
The upshot of the transcripts appears to be that Boing test pilots had raised issues with the performance of the MCAS, but that the FAA was not notified of those issues. This likely contributed to the FAA’s decision to approve the 737 Max’s new systems for flight.
Although there is no technical reason this revelation should slow down the return of the 737 Max to the air, an analyst with JPMorgan Chase & Co. noted that there is a public relations aspect to the decision. The timing of the transcript release could therefore slow down the plane’s return. Boeing has reportedly lost at least $8.4 billion so far due to the plane’s grounding.
The transcripts reveal that two senior pilots had been concerned about the MCAS “running rampant in the sim” and became worried that the FAA was being misled. One pilot says, “So I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly).”
This raises the question of whether Boeing intentionally misled the FAA about the performance of the MCAS.
Boeing had said it hoped the plane would be returned to the air by the end of this year.
Meanwhile, families of those lost in the two fatal crashes are hoping to get the 737 Max completely recertified before it takes to the air again.
“We want to avoid a third crash,” said the father of one victim. “If someone had been more active after [the first crash] in Indonesia, maybe this crash wouldn’t have happened.”
A former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board told NPR that a recertification would be extremely expensive and may not be necessary since regulators believe they understand the problems with the MCAS.
Still, the families say they don’t trust Boeing or the FAA because the same decisionmakers are in place as were before the fatal crashes.
Boeing is losing market share as well as money. But the plane should remain grounded until it is fixed and re-tested.