Edward Pierson, a former manager on the Boeing, at the hearing on the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in Washington, DC, the US, December 11 2019. Picture: ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG
Edward Pierson, a former manager on the Boeing, at the hearing on the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in Washington, DC, the US, December 11 2019. Picture: ANDREW HARRER/BLOOMBERG

Washington — The US Federal Aviation Administration said on Wednesday it was investigating production issues at Boeing’s 737 MAX factory, raised by an ex-manager who warned that schedule pressure and worker fatigue undermined quality and raised safety risks.

The manager, Ed Pierson, drew a link between faulty Angle of Attack sensors in two recent 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people and what he called a “chaotic and alarming state” inside Boeing’s factory that undermined quality and safety.

“It is alarming that these sensors failed on multiple flights mere months after the aeroplanes were manufactured in a factory experiencing frequent wiring problems and functional test issues,” Pierson said at a hearing before US legislators.

“I witnessed a factory in chaos,” he said.

At the hearing, US FAA chief Steve Dickson confirmed the agency will not approve Boeing Co’s grounded 737 MAX for flight before the end of 2019, citing a series of steps that still must be completed.

Federal officials said this week that FAA approval is not likely until January at the earliest, though some US officials think it may not be until at least February.

Boeing has warned that a significant delay in 737 MAX approval could force it to cut or even halt production of the aircraft, a move that would have repercussions across its global supply chain.

Legislators questioned Dickson about an internal FAA analysis produced after the first fatal crash on a Lion Air flight in 2018 that suggested serious risks of crashes over the life of the aircraft and questioned why that did not prompt more aggressive action.

Second crash

The second crash of a 737 MAX, flown by Ethiopian Airlines, occurred five months later.

“Despite its own calculations, the FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the travelling public and let the 737 MAX continue to fly until Boeing could overhaul its MCAS software,” said Peter DeFazio, who chairs the congressional transportation and infrastructure committee.

Boeing said its actions after the Lion Air crash — reinforcing standard flight procedures as it worked on a software fix — were “fully consistent” with the FAA’s analysis and established process, and its own internal safety assessment.

Once the FAA clears the aircraft to fly and approves training changes, it will still take US airlines 30 days or more to resume flights.

Dickson said at the hearing Boeing could still face fines for not disclosing problems with the 737 MAX earlier.

After Dickson testified, he spoke to some of the family members, who pressed him to make sure there is never a similar 737 MAX crash. As Dickson departed, the mother of one of the people killed in the flights called out: “We’re relying on you.”

The three US carriers that operate the 737 MAX — Southwest Airlines, American Airlines Group  and United Airlines Holdings — are scheduling flights without use of the aircraft until early March 2020, nearly a year since it was grounded.

The head of the International Air Transport Association, Alexandre de Juniac, warned on Wednesday that airlines face significant problems if the return to service of the 737 MAX drags on for months longer.