Written by Chris Hamby and Claire Moses
Boeing and U.S. safety officials refused to cooperate on Thursday with a new inquiry by Dutch lawmakers into a deadly crash near Amsterdam in 2009 that had striking parallels with two more recent accidents involving the manufacturer’s 737 Max.
Members of the Dutch parliament wanted to question the Boeing chief executive, David Calhoun, about the company’s possible influence over the original Dutch investigation of the crash, which killed nine people on a Turkish Airlines flight. The National Transportation Safety Board also refused lawmakers’ request to participate.
The legislators initiated the review in the wake of a New York Times examination of evidence from the 2009 crash that found that Dutch safety authorities had either removed or played down some criticisms of Boeing in their accident report, after pushback from an American team that included the manufacturer and officials from the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration.
The Dutch authorities had also declined to publish an expert study that blasted Boeing for “design shortcomings” and other missteps. The investigating agency, the Dutch Safety Board, had said the study was confidential, but later posted it online after The Times detailed its findings.
Boeing and the NTSB declined to comment on Thursday. In a letter to the Dutch House of Representatives, the NTSB said “there should be confidence in the integrity” of its participation in the initial investigation of the 2009 crash, insisting that its work was always “independent, transparent and free from bias.”
In a separate letter, Boeing’s executive vice president for government operations, Timothy Keating, said the American team in 2009 had been led by the NTSB and Boeing would follow its lead.
Jan Paternotte, a Dutch lawmaker, expressed frustration at Boeing’s refusal to attend the hearing on Thursday and likened the decision to the company’s missteps after the recent crashes of the 737 Max, which killed 346 people, plunged Boeing into the biggest crisis in its history, and shook international confidence in the manufacturer and its U.S. regulators.
“The company has a lot to answer for,” said Paternotte, a member of the parliamentary committee that held the hearing. “This is just the latest example of Boeing trying to be their own arbiter.”
Paternotte noted that European governments would need to approve the fixes to the Max, which has been grounded for nearly a year, before it could return to service. “Not answering questions does not help us to strengthen our confidence in the company,” he said.
The Dutch Safety Board’s report, issued in 2010, included some criticisms of Boeing but focused most of the blame on errors by the pilots, who had failed to notice that an automated system was cutting the plane’s speed dangerously low just before landing. Investigators determined that a malfunctioning sensor had caused the erroneous computer command.
But the previously unpublished study, commissioned by the board and conducted by an aviation safety expert, accused Boeing of emphasizing the pilots’ mistakes to divert attention from the company’s design missteps.
At the hearing, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who leads the Dutch Safety Board, acknowledged that there could be greater transparency around the source of information in its investigations, but said that the board had nonetheless acted independently and that Boeing had not escaped blame. Was Boeing deliberately spared? “That’s just not the case,” he said.
A former chairman, Pieter van Vollenhoven, who led the board at the time of the investigation, defended its emphasis on pilot errors causing the crash. “The pilots could have prevented it,” he said.
Some of the problems highlighted in the study by the expert, Sidney Dekker, now a professor in Australia and the Netherlands, have since resurfaced in the findings of investigators examining the recent Max crashes.
In both the Max accidents and the 2009 crash, which involved a 737 NG, Boeing’s design decisions allowed a single malfunctioning sensor to trigger a powerful computer command, even though the plane was equipped with two sensors. For both models, the company had determined that if a sensor failed, pilots would recognize the problem and recover the plane. But Boeing did not provide pilots with key information that could have helped them counteract the automation error.
After the 2009 crash, regulators required airlines to install a software update for the NG that allowed comparison of data from the two available sensors — much the same fix that Boeing has now proposed for the Max. With the NG, Boeing had developed a software update before the 2009 accident, but it was not compatible with all existing models, including the jet that crashed near Amsterdam.
Joe Sedor, the NTSB official who led the American team that participated in the Dutch inquiry a decade ago, as well as representatives of Boeing and the FAA, cautioned last month against comparing the crashes, noting that they involved different systems on different planes. But a senior FAA official, who was not authorized to speak publicly, told The Times that the study highlighted important issues that had not received sufficient public attention.
In its final report on the 2009 crash, the Dutch board removed or softened some statements after the U.S. team raised objections and wrote that the pilots’ mistakes had not been “properly emphasized.”
Aviation safety experts who reviewed the board’s final report and Dekker’s study told The Times that the incomplete airing of conclusions from the earlier crash amounted to a missed opportunity.
The earlier crash “should have woken everybody up,” said David Woods, an Ohio State professor who has advised the FAA. Instead, “the issue got buried.”
Lawmakers will discuss their inquiry again next week, Paternotte said after the hearing. In the meantime, he said, they will press the Dutch board for documents that could shed light on whether Boeing influenced the investigation.
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