After Lion Air crash, FAA predicted more Boeing 737 Max crashes but didn't ground plane

After the first crash of a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max last year, U.S. federal safety officials estimated that there could be 15 more fatal crashes of the Max over the next few decades if Boeing didn't fix a critical automated flight-control system.

Safety officials admit they did not understand automated flight-control system implicated in 2 fatal crashes

A forensic investigator walks by a pile of twisted airplane debris at the crash site of an Ethiopian Airlines-operated Boeing 737 Max aircraft on March 16. The crash killed 157 passengers and crew. (Tony Karumba/AFP/Getty Images)

After the first crash of a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max last year, U.S. federal safety officials estimated that there could be 15 more fatal crashes of the Max over the next few decades if Boeing didn't fix a critical automated flight-control system.

Yet the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not ground the plane until a second deadly crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane five months later.

The analysis was disclosed Wednesday during a hearing of the House transportation committee, which is investigating the FAA's oversight of Boeing and the Max.

"The FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the travelling public and let the Max continue to fly until Boeing could overhaul its MCAS software," said Peter DeFazio, chairman of the committee.

The FAA estimate covered the lifespan of the Max and assumed the fleet would eventually grow to 4,800 planes. Fewer than 400 were flying before they were grounded in March, after the second crash.

The head of the FAA said his agency controls the process of approving the return to service of the troubled plane and won't delegate any of that authority to Boeing.

FAA administrator Stephen Dickson defended the safety record of U.S. aviation safety while saying "what we have done in the past and what we are doing now will not be good enough in the future."

'Alarming' conditions at factory 

A retired Boeing production manager told the lawmakers about "alarming" conditions at Boeing's 737 factory in Renton, Washington, where two Max planes that crashed were built.

The manager, Edward Pierson, said the assembly line fell far behind schedule by mid-2018 because of cascading problems that began with late delivery of key parts. Yet Boeing went ahead with its plan to boost production from 47 to 52 planes a month.

FAA administrator Stephen Dickson testifies before the House committee on transportation and infrastructure in Washington on Wednesday. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

"By June 2018, I had grown gravely concerned that Boeing was prioritizing production speed over quality and safety," Pierson said in prepared remarks. "I witnessed a factory in chaos and reported serious concerns about production quality to senior Boeing leadership months before the first crash" and again before the second crash.

No action was taken about his concerns, and executives didn't discuss the problems in financial reports, Pierson said.

Boeing hopes airlines will be able to use the plane again early next year after the company completes fixes to flight-control software and computers. Dickson has insisted that the FAA has no timetable for granting that approval.

DeFazio praised Dickson's recent comments but was harshly critical of the agency and Boeing.

FAA 'failed to do its job' 

The FAA "failed to do its job. It failed to provide the regulatory oversight necessary to ensure the safety of the flying public," DeFazio said.

Published reports indicate that FAA officials knew very little about a flight-control system called MCAS that was implicated in the October 2018 crash of a Lion Air Max off the coast of Indonesia and the March 2019 crash of another Max in Ethiopia. In both crashes, investigators say, a faulty sensor caused MCAS to push the nose of the plane down and pilots were unable to regain control. In all, 346 people died.

Boeing 737 Max airplanes sit parked at Grant County International Airport on Oct. 23. In March, the FFA grounded all models of the aircraft, after a second crash. (David Ryder/Getty Images)

Regulators around the world ground the plane after the second crash.

Several relatives of passengers who died in the crashes attended Wednesday's hearing, which was likely to focus on allegations that the FAA has been too cozy with Boeing. Lawmakers have questioned the extent to which the FAA deputized Boeing employees to conduct safety analysis of key systems on the Max, including MCAS.

Dickson suggested that FAA will not delegate key review work to Boeing this time.

"The FAA fully controls the approvals process for the flight control systems and is not delegating anything to Boeing," Dickson said in his written testimony. "The FAA will retain authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates of airworthiness for all new 737 Max airplanes manufactured since the grounding."

Dickson said the plane will only return to flying after all safety issues have been addressed and pilots have received enough training to fly the plane safely.