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Boeing Safety Engineer Filed Ethics Complaint Last Year Over 737 Max Safety Upgrades


The aircraft maker Boeing may have rejected certain safety improvements when developing its 737 Max jet because it wanted to cut costs. That allegation comes from a Boeing safety engineer. He filed a complaint internally earlier this year. The complaint has just come to light today as investigators try to get to the bottom of two crashes of 737 Max jets, in which hundreds of people died. NPR's David Schaper has this report.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: The new allegation comes from a whistleblower inside the giant airplane manufacturer. A senior Boeing safety engineer filed an internal ethics complaint, according to reports of The Seattle Times and The New York Times. The complaint alleges that back in 2014, while the Max was still under development, the engineer and his team proposed adding various safety upgrades. But management rejected them because of their cost and because they would increase the need for expensive pilot training. The engineer, 33-year-old Curtis Ewbank, did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. But his complaint echoes those heard by the House Transportation Committee. Here's committee chairman Peter DeFazio.

PETER DEFAZIO: We have seen similar concerns regarding the Max expressed in other internal emails and also on our whistleblower line.

SCHAPER: DeFazio says the complaint once again raises questions about Boeing's corporate culture and whether the company's efforts to boost profits by quickly developing the 737 Max to compete with a new Airbus plane trumped internal quality and safety concerns. And the Oregon congressman wonders, where was the agency that's supposed to provide oversight?

DEFAZIO: The FAA is supposed to say, OK, yeah. We know you got commercial pressures. But by the way, we're in charge here, and you're just going to have to ignore those commercial pressures. And you're going to have to do things right. Now, how did the system fail in this case?

SCHAPER: That's also the subject of a Department of Justice criminal investigation. The engineer's complaint suggests that adding one of the systems his team suggested might have prevented the two deadly crashes. That system, known as synthetic airspeed, was unrelated to the MCAS system, which investigators say forced the planes repeatedly into uncontrollable nosedives. But the safety upgrade may have prevented MCAS from engaging based on data from one faulty sensor. Captain Shem Malmquist, who flies Boeing Triple Sevens and teaches aviation safety at Florida Tech, says he's not surprised the system wasn't added to the 737 Max.

SHEM MALMQUIST: Pilots are put in a position where they're expected to fix problems that are basically considered a rare event.

SCHAPER: Malmquist says companies are always faced with a tricky balancing act when weighing the cost of adding even more safety systems to planes that are already highly automated.

MALMQUIST: I wouldn't call this a failure of Boeing. I would look at this as a failure of our entire safety system and how we're certifying not just aircraft but any kind of advanced technology.

SCHAPER: Unrelated to the whistleblower news about the Max, the FAA today ordered new inspections on some previous versions of the 737 called the NG. Boeing recently notified the FAA of possible structural cracks on a handful of the planes.

David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.