The U.S. Department of Transportation has opened an investigation into the Federal Aviation Administration's approval of Boeing's 737 Max planes, the Wall Street journal is reporting.
The latest development emerged as a high-up representative from Boeing attended a vigil at the Ethiopian Community Center in Seattle along with family members of a victim on that flight.
The Wall Street Journal says the investigation focuses on a Seattle-area Federal Aviation Administration office that certifies the safety of new aircraft models and subsequent versions.
For more than six decades, the FAA has relied on employees of airplane manufacturers to do government-required safety inspections as planes are being designed or assembled.
But critics say the system, dubbed the “designee program” is too cozy as company employees do work for an agency charged with keeping the skies safe while being paid by an industry that the FAA is regulating.
“There is a potential conflict of interest,” said Todd Curtis, a former Boeing Co. safety engineer and creator of airsafe.com, a website that focuses on airline safety. “They (the FAA) don't have the money to do all of the oversight. It's a question of being practical.”
The probe comes after the 737 Max planes were grounded last week for an indefinite period of time after two deadly crashes – the latest an Ethiopian Airlines flight that crashed a week ago.
Sunday, the local Ethiopian community mourned the 157 people on board who were killed in the crash.
A Facebook live video from the events showed the Boeing senior vice president of global sales and marketing speaking at the event. He extended his sympathies to families of the victims and the broader community, also saying he lost friends on the deadly flight as well.
Also Sunday, the Ethiopian Minister of Transport said preliminary data recovered from the black boxes of last week’s Ethiopian Airlines crash has revealed “similarities” to October’s fatal Lion Air crash.
But safety experts say it's time to look into the agency's relationship with Boeing. The FAA's ties to the company were revealed when Boeing and the agency released similar messages shortly after the Indonesian airliner crashed in October and again last week, when the FAA announced that Boeing would upgrade the Max's flight-control software, said Mary Schiavo, a former Transportation Department inspector general.
With the messages, the FAA “revealed that they were just parroting what Boeing told them,” she said.
The agency needs more people with technical skills to adequately monitor a company that makes machines as sophisticated as today's jets, she said, contending that it didn't understand the Max's flight-control computer program.
“The FAA readily states they don't understand the 4 million lines of code and the 150 computers” Schiavo said. “What they do is see that Boeing followed the process, they checked the FAA boxes. The public thinks the FAA has more involvement.”
Indeed, the agency's own website says that employees of manufacturers can approve design changes and aircraft repairs. “Using designees for routine certification tasks allows the FAA to focus its limited resources on safety critical certification issues” it says.
Congress will examine the relationship between Boeing and the FAA. Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he would hold hearings on the FAA's process for approving the planes.
Boeing's president and CEO Dennis Muilenburg issued a statement, saying the company "continues to support the investigation, and is working with the authorities to evaluate new information as it becomes available."
Muilenburg said Boeing is taking actions to ensure the safety of its 737 Max jets in the wake of two crashes.
In an open letter addressed to airlines, passengers and the aviation community, Muilenburg said Boeing will soon release a software update and offer related pilot training for the 737 Max to "address concerns" that arose in the aftermath of October's Lion Air flight that plunged into the Java Sea, killing 189. The planes' new flight-control software is suspected of playing a role in the crashes.
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