Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s CEO, finally has been fired. Many wonder why it took so long.
The last straw for Boeing’s board of directors came on Friday. The company’s much-vaunted new Starliner capsule designed to take American astronauts to the International Space station veered off course after liftoff and never made it into space.
This literally made Boeing look like the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, and the fiasco joined a trail of others, including a military tanker program years late and way over budget, a new widebody jet program that is at least a year late—and, far more grave in its consequences, the deadly history of the Boeing 737-MAX.
More than 47 million people will take to the skies in the United States between December 19 and January 5—a record for the Christmas holiday break.
None of them will be flying on a Boeing 737 MAX, although thousands would have been, had the jet not been grounded.
The grounding has created an unprecedented crisis for the aviation industry. It involves around 700 airplanes—300 already with airlines around the world and 400 parked waiting to be delivered.
Last week Boeing suspended production of the jet after being told by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that it is far from ready to certify it as safe.
Two crashes within six months, one in Indonesia and one in Ethiopia, killed 346 people. The FAA has faced tough questioning in Congress about why it did not ground the jets after the first crash, of Lion Air Flight 610 on Oct. 29, 2018.
After that disaster the FAA carried out an analysis that predicted that there would likely be at least 15 crashes of the 737 MAX over its expected lifespan of 45 years, killing more than 2,000 people—if the design were not subjected to a new certification review.
Yet the model was not grounded until after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10 this year.
There have been so many alarms raised over many months about the handling of the crisis by Boeing and the regulators that the salient issues of concern to every airline passenger are often unclear. Here is a basic summation of those issues:
Will the 737 MAX ever fly again?
That’s a question with potentially huge consequences.
Boeing is, truly, too big to fail, but if this airplane were to be permanently grounded the financial costs would be calamitous. The company would likely be broken up, isolating the commercial division from the rest—defense and aerospace. The commercial division would declare Chapter 11 and be refinanced and rebuilt. This, in turn, would bring deep collateral damage to many thousands of jobs in Boeing plants and throughout long supply lines in companies beyond Boeing. Just suspending production, as happened this week, will instantly shave around 0.4 percent from the national GDP for every quarter the airplane remains grounded.
So it’s highly unlikely that it will be permanently grounded.
Isn’t that putting economic interests above safety? How will we know that the 737 MAX is safe to fly?
It used to be that in declaring an airplane safe the FAA was the world’s gold standard. That is no longer the case. The most damning takeaway from the 737 MAX experience is that the FAA stopped being an independent scrutineer of Boeing and, instead, became a captive of the company, allowing financial pressures to overcome due diligence in the process of certifying the airplane as safe.
Getting the airplane back safely in the air now depends on a consensus of international regulators, particularly the European Aviation Safety Agency, EASA. They have sent their own pilots and engineers to Seattle to carry out test flights. At the same time, the FAA is now finally playing hardball with Boeing—even to the point of summoning Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg to Washington to stop him issuing over-optimistic predictions of when the grounding will end.
Why is it taking so long to fix the problems?
Every part of this crisis leads back to one place, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, MCAS. Essential clues lie in that very choice of words:
“Maneuvering characteristics” is a euphemism for how the airplane behaves in situations outside the normal airline flight path—situations that would rarely be experienced.
“Augmentation” is a whopper of a euphemism. In this case it means how Boeing chose to introduce a new force to counter a new quirk in the way the 737 MAX behaved in a certain situation.
What do you mean, “a new quirk”?
When the airplane was being tested in a wind-tunnel, engineers discovered that in one situation, a climbing turn, the nose suddenly pitched up, which could end in an aerodynamic stall, endangering the flight.
The reason for this is that the MAX model has larger, heavier and more powerful engines than previous 737 models and they were positioned differently, further forward. This altered the trim—or aerodynamic balance—in a way that would not normally be a problem but turned out to be so in the climbing turn.
To solve this problem Boeing created MCAS—essentially writing new lines of software for the jet’s computers. To use another of the company’s euphemisms, MCAS was supposed to work “in the background”—to be unseen and unknown to the pilots.
You mean that Boeing decided not to tell the pilots that MCAS existed?
That’s correct. It was never mentioned when pilots familiar with previous 737 models were being trained for this model and it was left out of the cockpit flight manuals. The Lion Air pilots in the first of the two fatal crashes were unaware that it was MCAS forcing down the nose of their airplane, leading to the fatal dive.
Wouldn’t the simple answer to be just to remove MCAS and leave the pilots to handle the issue, if, as you say, it would occur very rarely and they would be trained to deal with it?
Interestingly enough, that is a solution recently advocated by an engineer at Transport Canada Civil Aviation, the Canadian regulator. Jim Marko, the manager of aircraft integration and safety assessment, proposed it in an email to the FAA. He wrote: “The only way I see moving forward at this point is that MCAS has to go.”
Marco added that he was concerned that regulators, under pressure to end the grounding, would accept software updates to MCAS even as new problems surfaced: “This leaves me with a level of uneasiness that I cannot sit idly by and watch it pass by.”
Other regulators, including the FAA, said they were considering Marco’s email along with other comments.
We do, however, know that Boeing has made one significant change to the MCAS. It has decreased the “authority” of the system, so that if it is triggered it no longer has sufficient power to override input from the pilots and force down the nose, as it did in the two crashes. Many analysts were surprised that MCAS had that degree of power in the first place.
Is MCAS the only problem that has to be fixed?
Definitely not. It was not the instigator of the crashes. In both crashes MCAS was triggered by false data fed from a device that judges whether the airplane is about to stall. This measures the angle of attack, the angle at which the wings meet the direction of the air flowing over the wings. If this angle becomes too steep, the air flowing over the wings breaks up and the wings lose their lift.
In both crashes the airplanes were not remotely at risk of stalling but the angle of attack sensors indicated that they were and consequently triggered MCAS.
Every jet flying has angle of attack sensors. They are particularly important in night flying, when pilots lose situational awareness. Occasionally they fail but a pilot can tell from his instruments and correct for that, since there is no hidden hand like MCAS to intervene.
So why did they fail so badly on the 737 MAX?
That is an important part of what regulators will want answered before they certify the airplane as safe. Small vanes placed on the outer skin of the nose inform the sensors of the angle of attack and these are vulnerable to damage, either during ground handling, including power washing and impact with a gate, or bird strikes in the air. A bird strike may have initiated the Ethiopian crash.
Regulators will want to see two things: More robust vanes and, particularly, new software able to detect false data before it reaches MCAS.
One single piece of false data should not be capable of causing a crash. It’s a basic rule of airplane safety that there should not be a single-point failure. In this case there should be at least one back-up system that kicks in to check and verify data and prevent action being taken on false data. After the Lion Air crash, a senior Boeing engineer assured me and other reporters that it was not caused by a single-point failure, but it was.
This is definitely a red-flag issue that must be dealt with and one that has protracted the process of re-certifying the airplane. A spokesman for EASA told The Daily Beast: “EASA has concerns regarding the consequences of angle of attack sensor failures and the ability of the flight crews to cope with the situation in critical phases of the flight.”
Didn’t Boeing say that the pilots could have prevented the crashes?
It did. This was their first line of defense after the Lion Air crash. Boeing claimed that even though the pilots were unaware of MCAS they could have overcome its actions by reverting to a drill that was in their training and flight manual to deal with “runaway stabilizer.”
That was tantamount to saying that the role of pilots is to save an airplane from a flaw that was designed into it.
Boeing’s line was forcefully rebutted by Captain “Solly” Sullenberger, hero of the “miracle on the Hudson” ditching into the Hudson River, who said, “Training and insufficient pilot experience are problems worldwide, but they do not excuse the fatally flawed design of the MCAS that was a death trap… I know first hand the challenges the pilots on the doomed flights faced, and how wrong it is to blame them for not being able to compensate for such a pernicious and deadly design.”
As Sullenburger said, highly uneven standards of pilot training and pilot proficiency around the world are problems because the growth of budget airlines like Lion Air has led to hasty recruitment and training and the overworking of pilots. But it’s a basic tenet of safety regimes that an airplane should never itself be a factor in accidents.
Do we have those problems with pilots in America?
No. The three airlines that fly the 737 MAX and which, therefore, have grounded them, American, Southwest and United, have the highest standards of pilot proficiency. Also their pilots have been very vocal in their criticism of Boeing and fluent in their understanding of the issues.
Should I fly on a 737 MAX if and when the grounding ends?
A lot of people will be asking that question. Normally airline passengers don’t pay much attention to what airplane they are about to board. The 737 MAX scandal has changed that. A survey of 2,000 passengers found that 72 per cent of them could identify this specific model.
Given the FAA’s new rigor and the added scrutiny of other regulators I would be confident that if it is cleared to fly it will be as safe as any other jet. There is, however, another thing to consider: cabin comfort.
For passengers the 737 remains basically as designed in the mid-1960s when the average girth of passengers was smaller. The rival Airbus A320, designed in the 1980s, has a wider and loftier cabin. That means that even with tight budget airline seating the A320 cabin gives you more space. If there is a competitive choice for your flight you should always opt for the Airbus.