Boeing 737 Max aircraft at the Boeing Renton factory in Washington, the US, March 12 2019. Picture: AFP/JASON REDMOND
Boeing 737 Max aircraft at the Boeing Renton factory in Washington, the US, March 12 2019. Picture: AFP/JASON REDMOND

Seattle/Washington, US — Boeing fell on heightened scrutiny by regulators and prosecutors over whether the approval process for the company’s 737 Max jetliner was flawed.

A person familiar with the matter on Sunday said that the US transportation department’s inspector-general was examining the plane’s design certification before the second of two deadly crashes of the almost brand-new aircraft.

Separately, the Wall Street Journal reported that a grand jury in Washington, DC, issued a subpoena to at least one person involved in the development process of the Max, on March 11. And a Seattle Times investigation found that US regulators delegated much of the plane’s safety assessment to Boeing and that the company in turn delivered an analysis with crucial flaws.

Boeing dropped 2.6% to $369.03 at 9.45am on Monday in New York, heading toward a new low since the deadly crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10. Ethiopia’s transport minister said on Sunday that flight-data recorders showed “clear similarities” between the crashes of that plane and Lion Air Flight 610 last October.

US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) employees warned as early as seven years ago that Boeing had too much sway over safety approvals of new aircraft, prompting an investigation by transportation department auditors who confirmed the agency hadn’t done enough to “hold Boeing accountable”.

The 2012 investigation also found that discord over Boeing’s treatment had created a “negative work environment” among FAA employees who approve new and modified aircraft designs, with many of them saying they’d faced retaliation for speaking up. Their concerns pre-dated the 737 Max development.

FAA outsourcing

In recent years, the FAA has shifted more authority over the approval of new aircraft to the manufacturer itself, even allowing Boeing to choose many of the personnel who oversee tests and vouch for safety. Just in the past few months, Congress expanded the outsourcing arrangement even further.

“It raises for me the question of whether the agency is properly funded, properly staffed and whether there has been enough independent oversight,” said Jim Hall, who was chair of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001 and is now an aviation-safety consultant.

At least a portion of the flight-control software suspected in the 737 Max crashes was certified by one or more Boeing employees who worked in the outsourcing arrangement, according to one person familiar with the work who was not authorised to speak about the matter.

The Wall Street Journal first reported the inspector general’s latest inquiry. The watchdog is trying to assess whether the FAA used appropriate design standards and engineering analysis in approving the 737 Max’s anti-stall system, the newspaper said.

Both Boeing and the transportation department declined to comment about that inquiry.

With Margaret Newkirk, Nizar Manek, Michael Sasso and Rita Devlin Marier.