Update 737 MAX Crash: How Culpable is Boeing?
Andrew Wheeler posted on April 06, 2019 |
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Boeing suspended deliveries of its 737 MAX aircraft after international aviation regulators grounded all 370 passenger versions currently in service. Boeing was set to produces 52 of them per month. They have a backlog of 4600 MAX jets ordered for delivery to international airlines over the next few years. (Image courtesy of Boeing.)

PT Garuda Indonesia is the first airline to pursue breaking its contract with Boeing for 737 MAX jets, citing a loss of confidence by consumers following the two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 passengers and crew. Though they initially wanted to cancel the order, they've now tentatively agreed to alter the order to receive other planes from Boeing instead of the 737 MAX jets originally ordered. But those negotiations will continue in a few months when the two parties meet again. United Continental Holdings Inc. is keeping its 14 MAX planes idle and off the flight schedule until at least June. Poland's LOT rented four planes to replace five MAX planes it pulled from their schedules. Some carriers like Norwegian Air Shuttle A/S are looking for financial compensation from Boeing, but many customers of Boeing signed warranties that cover maintenance and repair costs, and would only receive compensation if deliveries are delayed for over a year.

Southwest Airlines was cancelling 130 or more flights per day out of 4000 and stated that it is in the process of moving its 34 MAX jets from airports and maintenance centers. American Airlines has been cancelling 85 daily flights and moved its 24 MAX jets to hub airports and maintenance facilities. (Image courtesy of Southwest Airlines.)
After the grounding directive from the FAA, Southwest Airlines was cancelling 130 or more flights per day out of 4000 and stated that it is in the process of moving its 34 MAX jets from airports and maintenance centers. One of the MAX jets being flown to a maintenance facility for inspection suffered the loss of its right engine last week, prompting an emergency landing. American Airlines has been cancelling 85 daily flights and moved its 24 MAX jets to hub airports and maintenance facilities. (Image courtesy of Southwest Airlines.)

Boeing and the FAA's Fast Track Certification Woes Under Federal and Congressional Scrutiny

Boeing spent a fair amount of time and money lobbying in Washington for faster certification of new planes. Congress and the FAA were targeting with Boeing's lobby money, and both supported Boeing's request to authorize certain safety-functions to Boeing. Following the crashes, the FAA released a statement saying that Congress had been repeatedly ordering them to delegate more certification tasks under a program started in 2005 called Organized Designation Authorization (ODA). Lawmakers now looking to replenish and strengthen federal oversight are targeting ODA, which allowed for certain safety features to be certified by plane manufacturers like Boeing and Airbus.

Boeing defended the program in a statement which read, "Following an extensive qualification process, Boeing employees who are designated representatives of the FAA participate in regular trainings and receive guidance and oversight from the FAA. Boeing employees serving in this capacity act independently on behalf of the FAA when performing in this role."

Boeing's annual lobbying budget was USD 15.1 million in 2018, and on a 2018 earnings call, described progress in streamlining certification with the ODA as beneficial to both their Commercial and Defense business.

Investigators from the FBI, lawmake
Workers are still collecting the debris of the 737 MAX 8 jet that crashed on March 10th in Ethiopia approximately six minutes after takeoff. Boeing investigators and the FAA have not yet had a chance to go through black box data collected at the scene of the crash. (Image credit Source: © 2019 Mulugeta Ayene/AP)

Investigators from the FBI, lawmakers on Capitol Hill and the Department of Transportation are investigating different aspects of the two MAX plane crashes. Congressional investigators want to know why the software safety fix took so long for Boeing to implement after the October 2018 Lion Air crash in Indonesia. The FAA and Boeing have differed in their descriptions of how extensive the software fix was initially, and the U.S. Dept of Transportation is creating a special committee of experts to review the FAA's safety approval process for the MAX jets, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. 

The FBI is joining the criminal investigation into the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX 8, focusing on many aspects of the process, including Boeing's culpability in pilot training and ensuring that the pilot manual was up to date. The FAA has launched a separate inquiry to see if procedures were followed and if any certification rules were broken by its own employees or by Boeing's ODA employees. House and Senate subcommittees are starting hearings and inquiries looking into the certification of the planes as well.

Consensus is Emerging about the Failure of the MCAS System

There were complaints prior to the Ethiopian flight crashed on March 10th about Boeing stall prevention system, MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) that appeared first on the 737 MAX. The Dallas Morning News reported that they found that at least five complaints about the MAX jets were filed in a federal database where pilots can make reports anonymously. One pilot left a complaint about the manual saying it was "inadequate and nearly almost criminally insufficient," while others mentioned problems with the autopilot system in the minutes after takeoff.

So what actually happened?

It's still too early to definitively state the cause of the latest 737 MAX crash at this point. Boeing had a lot riding on the 737 MAX program. It was facing stiff competition from Airbus. Time-to-market could be reduced by choosing paths of least regulatory resistance. Boeing was under pressure by one of its biggest customer's requests to require the minimal amount of new training for the jetliners (which would in turn save airlines money). 

The 737 MAX entered service in 2017. It is not known if all pilots received training on the new stall prevention system. Pilots and airline industry officials said there was barely any mention of the new system in the flight manuals. Pilots experiencing a sensor malfunction of the MCAS system received no cockpit warnings. Flight simulators were not updated with the scenario that Lion Air Flight 610 faced in October nor the one faced by Ethiopia Airlines on March 10th.

After the crash, a Boeing executive ensured the American Airlines pilot union that "this wouldn't have happened to you guys," because American paid for an additional cockpit warning light that would have caught a pilot's attention.

Boeing is in the middle of a software fix for the MCAS system that investigators believe malfunctioned and caused the crash. It's still early in the investigation process, and a preliminary report from Ethiopian authorities is due in a few days. "Clear similarities were noted" between the Lion Air flight in October and the recent crash, according to Ethiopia's Transport Minister.

The preliminary report of the Lion Air crash describes how the MCAS anti-stall system received bad sensor information and pushed the nose of the plane down repeatedly as the pilot struggled to keep the plane level while a cascade of alarms went off in the cockpit.
The preliminary report of the Lion Air crash describes how the MCAS anti-stall system received bad sensor information and pushed the nose of the plane down repeatedly as the pilot struggled to keep the plane level while a cascade of alarms went off in the cockpit. (Image courtesy of The Seattle Times.)

Last week, Boeing went over the changes to the MCAS anti-stall system, saying that the anti-stall system will no longer rely on just one sensor to provide data about the angle of the aircraft's nose, but will now rely on two sensors. In response to the crashes, the FAA is now mandating specific cockpit alerts to warn pilots about incorrect sensor data.

Bottom Line

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Autopilot systems in airplanes have been a tremendous success throughout the history of modern aviation, and it's important to remember the accomplishments of aerospace engineers. The level of culpability between Boeing and the FAA remains to be determined. Did Boeing's lobbying strategy pay off for their bottom line? Yes, the MAX jets are their most successful model of all time, and they won back market share from rival Airbus. Did the formation of the ODA to fast-track safety certifications in one the most highly-regulated industries in the world compromise the safety of 346 passengers? Was the flight manual inadequate? We do know that there was no simulation training for the failure of sensor data in the MCAS anti-stall system to prepare and train pilots for the repeated attempts to push down the nose of the plane.

The investigation of the 737 MAX jets will continue for months. Until then, the entire fleet is grounded, making this one of the worst crises in Boeing's history. Training, software patches and possibly a hardware patch are to be expected from Boeing. The impact of of these crashes on Boeing's reputation will surely give an edge to Airbus in the competition to gain in the single-aisle passenger jet market. 

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