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US Transportation Dept probes FAA approval of 737 MAX: WSJ

The investigation by the department's inspector general was launched after a Lion Air crash in October killed 189 people, the newspaper said, months before the 10 March crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane killed 157.

A Boeing 737 MAX airplane is pictured on the tarmac with its signature winglet and fuel efficient engines outside the company's factory on 11 March 2019 in Renton, Washington. Picture: AFP

ADDIS ABABA/PARIS - The US Department of Transportation is investigating the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) approval of Boeing Co’s 737 MAX jets, the Wall Street Journal said on Sunday, citing people familiar with the inquiry.

The investigation by the department's inspector general was launched after a Lion Air crash in October killed 189 people, the newspaper said, months before the 10 March crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane killed 157.

Both planes were MAX 8s, and both crashed minutes post-take-off after pilots reported flight control problems.

The inquiry focuses on whether the FAA used appropriate design standards and engineering analyses in certifying the aircraft’s anti-stall system known as MCAS, the WSJ said.

Boeing did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Federal Aviation Administration declined to comment.

Two government officials briefed on the matter told Reuters it would not be surprising for the Transportation Department to investigate a major safety issue but could not immediately confirm the report.

Earlier in the day, Ethiopia said the Ethiopian Airlines crash had “clear similarities” with the Lion Air crash, according to initial analysis of the black boxes recovered from the wreckage.

Concern over the plane’s safety has caused aviation authorities worldwide to ground the model, wiping billions of dollars off Boeing’s market value.

“It was the same case with the Indonesian (Lion Air) one. There were clear similarities between the two crashes so far,” Ethiopian transport ministry spokesman Muse Yiheyis said.

“The data was successfully recovered. Both the American team and our (Ethiopian) team validated it,” he told Reuters, adding that the ministry would provide more information after three or four days.

In Washington, however, US officials told Reuters the FAA and US National Transportation Safety Board had not yet validated the data.

When investigators, after reviewing black box data, return to Addis Ababa and start conducting interpretive work, the NTSB and FAA will assist in verification and validation of the data, an official said.

A second source said little information had been circulated between parties about the contents of data and voice recordings.

It was not clear how many of the roughly 1,800 parameters of flight data and two hours of cockpit recordings, spanning the doomed six-minute flight and earlier trips, had been taken into account in the preliminary Ethiopian analysis.

International rules require a preliminary report on the crash to be released within 30 days.

SAFETY ANALYSIS

The crash has generated one of the most widely watched and high-stakes inquiries for years, with the latest version of Boeing’s profitable 737 workhorses depending on the outcome.

Previous accident reports show that in such high-profile cases there can be disagreements among parties about the cause.

In Paris, France’s BEA air accident investigation agency said data from the jet’s cockpit voice recorder had been successfully downloaded. The French agency said on Twitter it had not listened to the audio files and the data had been transferred to Ethiopian investigators.

In Addis Ababa, a source who has listened to the air traffic control recording of the plane’s communications said flight 302 had an unusually high speed after take-off before it reported problems and asked permission to climb quickly.

The Seattle Times reported that Boeing’s safety analysis of a new flight control system on 737 MAX jets had several crucial flaws.

The analysis of MCAS understated the power of this system, the Seattle Times said, citing current and former engineers at the FAA.

The FAA also did not delve into any detailed inquiries and followed a standard certification process on the MAX, the Seattle Times said, citing an FAA spokesperson.

The FAA declined to comment on the report but referred to previous statements about the certification process. It has said the 737-MAX certification process followed the FAA’s standard process.

The report also said both Boeing and the FAA were informed of its specifics and their responses sought 11 days ago, before the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

Last Monday Boeing said it would deploy a software upgrade to the 737 MAX 8, a few hours after the FAA said it would mandate “design changes” in the aircraft by April.

Boeing was finalizing the software change and a training revision and would evaluate new information as it became available, Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg said in a statement on Sunday after the Ethiopian transport ministry’s comments.

A Boeing spokesman said the 737 MAX was certified in line with identical FAA requirements and processes that governed certification of all previous new airplanes and derivatives. The spokesman said the FAA concluded that MCAS on 737 MAX met all certification and regulatory requirements.

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