Boeing Co. engineers discovered in 2017 that a software glitch had rendered a warning light on the newly introduced 737 Max inoperable on 80% of the planes. But the company chose not to fix it or to inform U.S. regulators.
The next year, a Lion Air jet suffered the malfunction the alert was designed to detect and crashed in the Java Sea. The lack of an alert was cited as a factor in the crash by Indonesian investigators and Boeing’s failure to fix it drew stiff condemnation from lawmakers and families of the victims.
Now the inoperable warning light is threatening to become a costly new headache for the planemaker: its absence on the jet violated U.S. Federal Aviation Administration regulations. The FAA is considering imposing civil penalties, according to documents and officials, which can amount to millions of dollars.
“A manufacturer cannot alter the airplane’s features after it has been certified,” the then-acting head of the FAA, Daniel Elwell, said in a letter to lawmakers last July, referring to the malfunctioning alert.
The fines could accrue quickly. The agency’s enforcement guidelines say large businesses such as Boeing can be assessed $3,000 to more than $34,000 per violation. That could be applied to each of the more than 300 planes on which the alert didn’t work.
Moreover, a 2015 agreement to settle 13 separate investigations against Boeing — some of them involving similar issues of aircraft certification — gives the FAA a way to take swift action against the company. Boeing paid $12 million in that case, but could be assessed an additional $24 million if the FAA finds the violations continued.
At the very least, the failure to disclose the inoperative warning light combined with other recent disclosures by the company — such as messages between employees mocking the FAA — have significantly soured the relationship between the Chicago-based manufacturer and its regulator.
J.E. Murdock, who served as FAA’s chief counsel and acting deputy administrator in the 1980s, said he’d never seen anything like what he called Boeing’s recent “disregard” for norms during his four decades of working in the aviation sector.