Natalie Kitroeff, David Gelles and Jack Nicas
c.2019 The New York Times Company
A senior Boeing engineer filed an internal ethics complaint this year saying that during the development of the 737 Max jet the company had rejected a safety system to minimize costs, equipment that he felt could have reduced risks that contributed to two fatal crashes.
Boeing has provided the complaint, which was reviewed by The New York Times, to the Department of Justice as part of a criminal investigation into the design of the Max, according to a person with knowledge of the inquiry who requested anonymity given the ongoing legal matter. Federal investigators have questioned at least one former Boeing employee about the allegations, said another person with knowledge of the discussions who similarly requested anonymity.
Many current and former Boeing employees have privately discussed problems with the design and decision-making process on the 737 Max. The engineer who filed the ethics concerns this year, Curtis Ewbank, went a step further, lodging a formal complaint and calling out the chief executive for publicly misrepresenting the safety of the plane.
During the development of the 737 Max, Ewbank worked on the cockpit systems that pilots use to monitor and control the airplane. In his complaint to Boeing, he said that managers were urged to study a backup system for calculating the plane’s airspeed. The system, known as synthetic airspeed, draws on several data sources to measure how fast a plane is flying.
Such equipment, Ewbank said, could detect when the angle-of-attack sensors, which measure the plane’s position in the sky, were malfunctioning and prevent other systems from relying on that faulty information.
Ewbank noted in the complaint, “It is not possible to say for certain that any actual implementation of synthetic airspeed on the 737 Max would have prevented the accidents” in Ethiopia and Indonesia. But he said that Boeing’s actions on the issue pointed to a culture that emphasized profit in some cases, at the expense of safety.
A Boeing spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, said in a statement, “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,” he added.