Boeing’s heavy hit from deadly 737 MAX crashes
At press time, Boeing had missed an April 1 deadline to deliver a 737 MAX stall prevention system software upgrade to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, saying it needed up to six more weeks to fully develop the fix. Associate editor and chief correspondent, Tom Ballantyne, reports on the fallout engulfing Boeing as it continues its “ongoing review” of the software changes.
As Boeing scrambled to introduce a fix to the anti-stall system blamed for the crashes of a Lion Air B737 MAX 8 last October and an Ethiopian Airlines jet of the type in March, the global aerospace manufacturer was pulling out all the stops to reassure customers and regulators that the jet would soon be returning to the skies. Read More »
As the April 1 deadline approached for a solution to the problem to produced, Boeing invited more than 200 airline pilots, technical leaders and regulators for an information session at its Renton, Seattle facility. “This is part of our ongoing effort to share more details about our plan for supporting the safe return of the 737 MAX to commercial service,” said Boeing in a statement.
“We had a productive session this past Saturday and plan to reach all current and many future MAX operators and their home regulators. At the same time, we continue to work closely with our customers and regulators on software and training updates for the 737 MAX. Boeing is paying for the development of these updates.”
It was a clear sign nothing was being left to chance to calm the frenzy of criticism aimed at Seattle in the wake of the two 737 MAX crashes. The fatal accidents, coming so close together and involving such a new aircraft, were a body blow to Boeing’s reputation.
Until the Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10, the B737 series was the fastest selling aircraft in the company’s history, with an order book of 15,000 since the aircraft type was launched in 1967.
The latest version, the MAX, has received more than 4,700 orders since 2011 and 370 of the jets have been delivered to 47 customers. The Boeing Company president, chairman and CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, quickly pointed out that since its certification and entry into service, the MAX family had completed hundreds of thousands of flights safely.
Yet the two accidents appear to have revealed a fatal flaw in the aircraft. The crashes, which took the lives of 346 passengers and crew, occurred minutes after take-off as the airplanes were climbing towards altitude. Under suspicion after the first accident was a new anti-stall system, MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), which was designed to bring the aircraft nose down if it detected the plane was climbing too steeply and was approaching a stall.
Apparently, if receiving false data from sensors, it can put the jet into a dive when it was, in reality, operating normally and climbing as planned. While it will be months before definitive reports on both accidents are completed, early indications from the Ethiopian crash indicated it was strikingly similar to the Lion Air accident of October 29 last year that took the lives of all 189 passengers and crew onboard.
The French Bureau of Investigation and Analysis (BEA) successfully extracted the data of the cockpit voice recorder (CVR) and flight data recorder (FDR) from the Ethiopian Airlines MAX 8 and sent the contents to Addis Ababa, where Ethiopian Transport, Minister Dagmawit Moges, announced in a press conference that “clear similarities were noted between Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 and Lion Air flight 610”.
Part of the fix being offered by Boeing is a warning light for malfunctions in the anti-stall system. Previously this feature was available but was sold as an optional extra that neither Lion Air nor Ethiopian Airlines had purchased. It will now become standard on all MAX aircraft, warning pilots if the system was receiving false data.
The global grounding of its most popular jet hit Boeing hard. At press time, the company’s shares had lost US$26 billion in value. The aerospace group faces potentially high compensation claims for the loss of crew and passengers onboard both aircraft, not only from the families of the deceased but from the two airlines that lost their aircraft.
The MAX was expected to account for more than 90% of planned year-end deliveries for Boeing. Several airlines are reported to be reconsidering their purchase commitments for the jet. So far, only one airline, Garuda Indonesia, has announced cancellation of its order for 50 of the type. Boeing sent a top executive to Jakarta to discuss the cancellation as the risk of losing customers to Airbus increases.
Asia-Pacific customers that operate or have ordered the MAX include Air China, BOC Aviation, China Southern Airlines, Hainan Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Shanghai Airlines, SilkAir, SpiceJet, Thai Lion Air and Vietjet. At press time, the Vietnamese LCC, was holding fast to its order of 200 of the type.
In the weeks following the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the U.S. Congress joined the investigation into Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The Senate aviation sub-committee will examine the process of the FAA’s oversight procedures in the commercial aviation industry.
The country’s Department of Transport (DoT) inspector general is conducting a separate probe into the FAA’s decision to approve the MAX. As well as the country’s politicians, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating aspects of the approval process.
Competitive pressure to build the jet, which permeated the entire design and development of the 737 variant, threatens the reputation and future profits of Boeing. Prosecutors and regulators are investigating whether the effort to design, produce and certify the MAX was rushed, leading Boeing to miss crucial safety risks and to underplay the need for additional pilot training for operators of the aircraft.
Several experts dispute this assumption. The MAX was launched in 2011 and did not fly until early 2016. It proceeded through a 2,000-hour flight test program and a 180-minute ETOPS testing that required 3,000 simulated flight cycles. In fact, the 737 MAX took longer to design and certify than any other 737 model or major upgrade.
Nevertheless, U.S. Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao, formally directed an internal watchdog office to audit the certification process of the MAX, a decision announced amidst reports U.S. authorities had launched a criminal investigation into the certification of the top-selling jet. It will be conducted in part by the department’s Inspector General’s office, which completes audits and criminal investigations in conjunction with the Justice Department.
Both Boeing and the DoT declined comment about the inquiry. In a statement, the FAA said its “aircraft certification processes are well established and have consistently produced safe aircraft designs”. It added the “737 MAX certification program followed the FAA’s standard certification process”.
Latterly, the FAA has shifted more authority in the approval process of new aircraft to the manufacturer. It has allowed Boeing to select many of the personnel who oversee tests and vouch for safety.
In recent months, the U.S. Congress expanded the outsourcing arrangements. “It raises, for me, the question of whether the agency is properly funded and properly staffed and whether there has been enough independent oversight,” said Jim Hall, who was chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board from 1994 to 2001 and is now an aviation safety consultant.
The FAA’s certification procedures are not the only issue that has attracted regulatory and political attention. Normally regarded as a global leader in reacting to a safety crisis, the FAA is being questioned about its delay in grounding the MAX fleet. It was two days behind the rest of the world, including China and other countries in the Asia-Pacific. Even then, it appeared the U.S. agency only acted after an emergency order was issued by U.S. president Trump.
The issue that cockpit crews flying both of the lost aircraft craft had not been trained to react safely when the aircraft’s technology was not working also has to be addressed.
Boeing had been working on a software upgrade for the anti-stall system and pilot displays on the MAX since the Lion Air crash and also on updating pilot training. However, specific new pilot training was not expected to be defined until the software fix was in place. In other words, it had not been completed by the time the Ethiopian crash occurred.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the accidents and several subsequent inquiries, Boeing’s Muilenburg stressed in a lengthy public letter that “We have been working in full cooperation with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board on all issues relating to both the Lion Air and the Ethiopian Airlines accidents since the Lion Air accident occurred in October last year”.
While current circumstances may hurt Boeing, most experts agreed there would be a fix and the MAX would fly again as the newest member of the 737 family. The B787 also was grounded following issues with batteries that ignited in flight and on the ground. Today, it is one of the world’s most popular commercial aircraft. The critical difference is that no lives were lost from the B787’s battery problems.
Boeing forced to delay 737 MAX installation of software fix
In the final week of March, Boeing released details of the intensive testing it has been conducting on the software update for the anti-stall system, the MCAS or Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, suspected to be the root cause of the two fatal accidents at Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines. A few days later, the company announced it would need up to six more weeks to present its fix to the FAA.
“In the simulator, pilots varied the angle of attack and airspeed to assess their effects on other systems in the airplane. In addition, the simulator operators programmed the simulator to simulate single and multiple errors or failures, subjecting the equipment to the most challenging scenarios,” said Boeing in a March 26 statement.
“The pilots worked with the software design team to incorporate multiple layers of protection in the event of sensor errors or other erroneous inputs. They assessed a broad range of piloting techniques to ensure normal airmanship skills are sufficient to control the airplane.
“The FAA participated in the evaluation. This cleared the way for installing the updated software on the airplane and provided a high level of confidence that it would perform as expected,” Boeing said.
Pilots conducted a certification flight with the FAA on March 12th, when they demonstrated that the airplane with the updated software meets certification requirements.