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Top FAA Regulators Never Knew of Boeing Software Issue

New rules allowed company to have more of a say in the certification procedure
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 21, 2019 9:36 AM CDT

(Newser) – The Boeing 737 Max is grounded as the company works on a fix for an anti-stall software issue suspected in two fatal crashes. In the meantime, the feds are trying to figure out how the jet passed FAA inspection in the first place. A story in the New York Times may provide part of the answer: The 737 Max series was among the first commercial jets to get approval under rules put in place in 2005 that put the onus on manufacturers such as Boeing to flag potential problems. No red flags were raised about the software issue to top FAA officials. Instead, they focused on issues related to lithium batteries and inflatable slides. Only low-level FAA officials were even aware of the software system, but it wasn't seen as a red flag—so much so that pilots weren't required to receive special training about it. In the meantime, the investigation intensifies:

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  • Extra charge: Boeing makes two safety features that in theory could have helped the pilots in both crashes detect trouble earlier. However, because they are sold as extras, neither plane had them, reports the New York Times. The manufacturer will make one of those features standard as part of its fix.
  • FBI is in: The FBI has joined an investigation being conducted by the Transportation Department's inspector general, reports the Seattle Times. Getting the inspector general involved is itself an unusual move, notes the newspaper. The inquiry is being overseen by the Justice Department's criminal division.
  • Subpoenas: A federal grand jury in Washington sent a subpoena to somebody involved in the jet's development, reports the AP. Little more is known about that, but the subpoena seeks emails and other communications. CNN reports that Justice Department prosecutors also have issued multiple subpoenas, though it was not clear what criminal issues might be involved. Investigators are apparently trying to learn more about Boeing's safety and certification procedures.
  • Conflict? This isn't related to the 737 Max issue, but acting defense chief Patrick Shanahan is accused of boosting Boeing and slamming its competitors during meetings about which jet fighters to buy, reports Politico. The problem? Shanahan worked for Boeing for more than 30 years. The Defense Department's inspector general is investigating the potential conflict of interest after complaints from a watchdog group, per the New York Times. The issue could hurt Shanahan's chances of being named the permanent defense chief.
(Read more Boeing stories.)

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