Boeing CEO Admits Culpability, China Looms Large and Questions Remain About Pilot Actions
Andrew Wheeler posted on April 11, 2019 |

Boeing has a lot of issues right now. Software issues, sensor issues, training and manual issues, issues with the FAA and international regulators, with the FBI and with members of congress in the United States of America. The crashes of two of Boeing's 737 MAX 8 jets within several months of each other caused a public crisis for Boeing, and the international uproar in global news media doesn't seem to be letting up.

According to a report in The New York Times, the planes lacked the safety features because Boeing charged additional fees to install them on the MAX aircraft. Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines reportedly did not opt to purchase these two additional features. The two safety components in question are centered around a particular aircraft sensor, called the angle of attack sensor. The AOA sensor measures the angle of the aircraft nose and at which air passes over the wings. On the MAX jet, there was a computer system, called a Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that automatically pushed the aircraft nose downward if the AOA sensor said it was tipping too high, which puts the jet at risk of an aerodynamic stall.
The New York Times reported that the doomed 737 MAX 8 jets of Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines lacked two additional safety features that centered around the angle of attack (AOA) sensor. Boeing offered them as optional and available to purchase with orders. Neither airline did so. The faulty AOA sensor measured the angle of the plane's nose which fed the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an automated anti-stall system that was designed to push the aircraft nose downward if the AOA sensor data showed the angle to be too high, which would cause stalling. (Image courtesy of Boeing.)

Boeing Issues Formal Public Apology

However, Boeing is taking steps in the right direction. Last week, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg publicly recognized that bad sensor data sent to the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet's automated flight system played a role in both the Lion Air crash in the Java Sea in Indonesia, and the March 10th crash in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Muilenburg released a video on Boeing's twitter account that acknowledged culpability after the preliminary investigation from Ethiopian aviation officials found there was no pilot error that caused the crash. 

Muilenburg apologized on behalf of the company, saying "We at Boeing are sorry for the lives lost in the recent 737 MAX accidents." He regretfully admitted their culpability, "....with the release of the preliminary report of the Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 accident investigation it's apparent that in both flights the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, known as MCAS, activated in response to erroneous angle of attack information," taking responsibility for the apparent engineering failures of the jets.

New Software Delay on MCAS Overhaul Proposal

In the same week, Boeing announced that it had identified a second software issue that would cause delays for their initial "software overhaul" estimates and they're hoping the entire software upgrade will be completed by the end of April. The effort to redesign and revise software around the MCAS stall-prevention feature comes on the heels of the tentative determinations found by preliminary investigators from Ethiopian aviation regulators.

Boeing Cuts Production of 737 MAX Jets by 20 Percent

The company announced that they are cutting production of the 737 MAX by a fifth, meaning they will produce 42 jets per month as the fallout continues. 378 MAX jets have been grounded around the world, waiting for Boeing's completion of the MCAS software overhaul and approval from the FAA as well as international aviation regulators.

Boeing Now Has A Serious China Problem

96 of the 378 MAX jets grounded internationally are the property of Chinese carriers, and China was the first nation to ground all the aircraft. China has a few big state-owned airlines, and one of them, China Eastern Airlines Corp., approached Boeing for financial compensation caused by the decision of the Civil Aviation Administration of China to ground the jets.
96 of the 378 MAX jets grounded internationally are the property of Chinese carriers, and China was the first nation to ground all the aircraft. China has a few big state-owned airlines, and one of them, China Eastern Airlines Corp., approached Boeing for financial compensation caused by the decision of the Civil Aviation Administration of China to ground the jets. (Image courtesy of China Eastern Airlines Corp.)

Since China has hundreds of jets on order from Boeing, they also have a good deal of leverage to register their complaints and win key purchase negotiations. China is a massive market for Boeing and Airbus, with plans to buy nearly 8000 jets over the next twenty years, and approximately 500 MAX jets on order. China Aircraft Leasing Group Holdings Ltd. (CALC), ordered 75 of the MAX jets in 2017 and 2018 with an option to purchase 25 additional aircraft. CALC is sticking by Boeing and announced that they will not be canceling orders, agreeing to trust Boeing's response and follow-up to the recent crashes. 

As one would expect, rival manufacturer Airbus is putting Boeing's feet to the fire, announcing just last month that it closed an order for 300 jets from China, including 290 A320s, the model that is a direct competitor to the 737 MAX jet. The political nature of China's aircraft purchasing power comes from the fact that the state, through the form of a centralized government agency, issues bulk order from carriers like Boeing and Airbus, then distributes the planes to lessors and domestic airlines. This mode of operation and their market share, following the Boeing incidents, gives China the power to negotiate better conditions for future orders and resumption of current orders and deliveries.

Boeing and the FAA Shore Up International Support for Their Big Fix

Restoring trust is the name of the game, internationally, and Boeing with the FAA are forming a panel to coordinate an assuagement among international aviation regulators and airlines around the world. Sponsored by the FAA, the international committee is called the Joint Authorities Technical Review and is co-chaired by NASA. 

The move underscores how devastating the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes have been on the reputation of Boeing, the FAA and trust in American air-safety leadership. The panel will be led by Christopher Hart, who was chairman of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and it includes representatives from the European Union, Canada, Indonesia, Brazil, the United Arab Emirates and China. Members of this international panel will meet for the first time next month and will be examining the quality and efficacy of Boeing's big software fix to the automated MCAS anti-stall system. Top FAA official Ali Bahrami came up with the idea along with Boeing to provide independent validation to regulators and airlines around the world when the 737 MAX jet returns to service.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is working with Boeing and the FAA on the committee and expressed willingness to help get the planes back in service as soon as independent confirmation of the MCAS software overhaul is completed to their satisfaction. 

Boeing Admits Culpability, but Questions about the Pilot's Actions Remain

Though air accident investigators believe that the automated MCAS anti-stall system malfunctioned, causing the fatal crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, some industry officials, pilots and experts are questioning the actions of the flight and crew, who were exonerated in the preliminary investigation as having followed official procedures and every step laid out by Boeing.

Flight 302 was only in the air six minutes, and it was traveling at an unusually high speed for the duration of the flight. The pilots also reactivated the MCAS anti-stall system after manually overriding it, which is perhaps the most unusual human element to the crash. They identified the MCAS anti-stall system as the malfunction, which was causing the nose to repeatedly dip downward, and the high speed they were traveling made it harder to pull the nose of the plane up from its fatal descent. The preliminary report showed that the pilots did not reduce engine thrust during the flight, staying at takeoff levels and achieving a speed far beyond its acceptable operating range, which also makes it difficult for pilots to move flight-control components on the MAX 8's tail. The usual move with regards to speed, is for pilots to reduce thrust in the case of flight control issues, but the fact remains that they did not adjust thrust from takeoff levels, exacerbating manual efforts to right the plane after the MCAS system was turned off. Perhaps the thrust levels were kept the same as the pilots intended to continue the climb instead of leveling off.

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 (Image courtesy of The Seattle Times.)

Before flipping the cutout switches, the crew followed procedure and electrically trimmed the plane to push the nose back up, but perhaps didn't bring the nose up far enough, since the plane was still wobbling and unstable. Then they turned the electrical system off, cutting out he MCAS anti-stall system. After they couldn't steady the plane, they tried to use a manual wheel to pull the nose up, and having failed to do so, seconds before their last descent, they turned on the malfunctioning MCAS system to lift the nose. 

Bottom Line

Boeing admits culpability, forms a NASA-backed international committee with the FAA to assuage international aviation regulators and airline officials, could possibly face legal action from China and other airlines, has more delays because of a new issue found with the MCAS anti-stall system overhaul, but questions remain about the Ethiopian Airlines pilots. 

It’s a big test for Boeing and the FAA. Restoring trust isn't going to be easy, and we'll have more details on the multivariate problems surrounding the two fatal crashes of MAX 8 jets in October of 2018, and March of 2019.

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