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By Andrew Tangel and Andy Pasztor
A Boeing Co. engineer involved in the development of the 737 MAX claims the aerospace giant's managers overly prized controlling costs and schedules at the expense of safety, allegations that are currently part of a federal criminal investigation after two fatal crashes of the aircraft.
An internal complaint filed by the engineer after the second fatal MAX crash, in March, portrays Boeing's culture as one that stifled criticism, internal debate and learning from crashes to improve safety.
"There is a suppressive cultural attitude towards criticism of corporate policy especially if that criticism comes as a result of analysis of fatal accidents," the engineer, Curtis Ewbank, wrote in the complaint.
A perception among employees that Boeing doesn't value candid debate, Mr. Ewbank added, "has a negative effect on the safety culture at Boeing."
Mr. Ewbank's complaint is among thousands of documents Boeing has turned over to federal authorities as part of a criminal investigation that is in its early stages, people familiar with the matter said. Boeing hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing.
Mr. Ewbank, his complaint and issues it raised have come up in at least one witness interview that included Justice Department prosecutors and agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Transportation Department's inspector-general office, one of these people said.
Boeing declined to comment on the complaint, but a spokesman said: "Safety, quality and integrity are at the core of Boeing's values. Boeing offers its employees a number of channels for raising concerns and complaints and has rigorous processes in place, both to ensure that such complaints receive thorough consideration and to protect the confidentiality of employees who make them."
The Seattle Times reported earlier on Mr. Ewbank's complaint.
His complaint, totaling more than 5,000 words, offers an inside glimpse at what one engineer alleges was a pattern of Boeing managers playing down safety threats over the years, using cost as a primary reason to reject various proposed design enhancements to make the 737 MAX and predecessor models less prone to accidents.
One of the examples the complaint cites pertains to a system known as synthetic airspeed. Mr. Ewbank wrote that he had supported adding the system to the 737 MAX, Boeing's latest version of its best-selling single-aisle jet, arguing it would enhance safety.
Managers overseeing the creation of the new plane ultimately rejected the system, however -- a decision Mr. Ewbank attributed to associated costs to Boeing and to airlines, which could have been required to provide their pilots additional training had the new system been used.
But a person close to Boeing said company managers thoroughly vetted Mr. Ewbank's arguments for the system and decided against it because its potential benefits weren't clear and the system would entail significant complications for the MAX's flight-control system. This person described the engineer as earnest, competent and steadfast in his views.
People familiar with the MAX development described the system as potentially "nice to have" but not essential, and one that wouldn't have had an effect on how faulty sensor data would trigger the flight-control system known as MCAS that investigators have implicated in the fatal accidents involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines.
In his complaint, Mr. Ewbank notes: "Given the complex nature of the Lion Air and Ethiopian accidents it is not possible to say for certain that any actual implementation of synthetic airspeed on the 737 MAX would have prevented the accidents."
Mr. Ewbank left Boeing earlier this decade after finding his tenure there frustrating, according to Rick Ludtke, a former Boeing cockpit-systems engineer. Mr. Ludtke recalls his former colleague complaining that Boeing should add synthetic airspeed to the MAX if the company cared about safety.
"He was taking a moral stand," Mr. Ludtke said.
Mr. Ewbank, who eventually returned to Boeing, didn't respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Ewbank's complaint -- crammed with names, dates and technical details -- alleges that during development of the MAX, management repeatedly rejected as too expensive various potential safety upgrades intended to increase the reliability of certain sensors, along with upgraded cockpit-warning systems to make it easier for pilots to react to emergencies.
The ethics complaint filed provides scant details about development of the plane's automated stall-prevention system, called MCAS, implicated in the dual crashes that have grounded the global MAX fleet. It doesn't shed light on exactly why Boeing opted to rely on a single sensor for critical data, a decision that led to MCAS misfires that brought down two MAX jets in less than five months.
But some of the specifics of related systems -- and details of how management allegedly dealt with possible safety improvements -- raise questions about the aerospace giant's safety culture. According to the ethics complaint, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, Boeing managers were aware of previous accidents and internal company engineering studies highlighting the hazards of such single-sensor systems.
Referring to Chairman and Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg's statements asserting that the MAX fleet was safe, Mr. Ewbank alleged that the CEO and other senior executives "seriously misrepresented what Boeing engineering has learned" about safe designs.
Boeing has maintained the MAX is safe, and the person close to the manufacturer said the aircraft met industry and Federal Aviation Administration safety requirements when the agency certified it. Boeing had previously relied primarily on pilots to use a long-standing emergency procedure to counteract an MCAS misfire. Boeing is modifying the MCAS with greater safeguards, including redesigning it to rely on two sensors.
Despite Boeing's pledges to listen carefully to internal safety concerns and encourage confidential complaints without any threat of reprisals to employees, Mr. Ewbank alleged that "the fear of retaliation is high despite all official assurances" to the contrary.
Mr. Muilenburg recently launched a restructuring of how the company handles engineering and safety matters, after an internal review following the MAX crashes.
The new structure's aims include reducing the influence of costs and production schedules over engineering decisions, and giving greater attention to employees' safety concerns. The goal, Mr. Muilenburg said, is to enhance safety so the aviation industry can better learn from accidents and improve.
"We know we can always do better," Mr. Muilenburg said Wednesday at a meeting of the Economic Club of New York.
Separately, on Wednesday the Federal Aviation Administration mandated urgent structural inspections of some 160 Boeing 737 NG models, which predate the MAX design, along with subsequent checks and repairs, as necessary, affecting more than 1,700 other NG jets operated by U.S. carriers. The first round of checks must be completed within seven days.
The potential cracks, which Boeing told U.S. authorities and carriers about last month, "could adversely affect the structural integrity of the airplane and result in loss of control," according to the FAA's directive.
The order comes two days after a separate FAA proposal to inspect and possibly repair problems with other fuselage components on some 750 737 NGs in the U.S., which the FAA said could result in "uncontrolled decompression and loss of structural integrity."
Neither of the structural issues has caused in-flight events, and the FAA's orders aren't expected to keep any planes grounded.
Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Andy Pasztor at firstname.lastname@example.org
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
October 02, 2019 19:33 ET (23:33 GMT)
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