Back in late October of 2018, the world was saddened to see the news that an airliner had crashed in Indonesia. The plane, we learned, was operated by Lion Air, a domestic carrier. We also heard the very sad news that all 181 passengers and crew members had lost their lives in the crash. Oh, and it was a brand new plane, a Boeing 737 Max, which many people faintly knew was the latest update to the 737 lineup, though not that many people who aren’t in the airline world keep up with every model change of every airplane. And besides, how likely was it that the tragedy had anything to do with the fact that it was a new model?
Well, as it turned out, the accident was a strange one. For people who have been around plane crash investigations, a severe nose-down descent into the terrain—which is how, we came to learn—the Lion Air plane crashed, is something that happens overwhelmingly in certain instances. One of those is when there’s a control force trimming malfunction, known as a trim runaway. The more details we learned, including the roller-coaster flight path of the 737 Max, the more that seemed like a distinct possibility.
And then on March 10th of this year, there was another crash of a 737 Max, and by then we all knew there was a problem. Well, all of us except for Boeing and the FAA, that is. Aviation authorities everywhere else in the world grounded the planes. Embarrassed and under pressure from all directions, including from the White House, Boeing finally changed its tune, though it continued carefully crafting its responses, their reactions to news developments sounding more like they had been pumped up by attorneys working with public relations people to spin a tale that was hard to swallow.
Little has changed in the past couple of months. We still don’t have very good answers, but at least we have a strong sense of what the questions are.
5. Why did the FAA take such a hands-off approach to the certification of the Max and the control balancing system known as MCAS that was central to its design?
We had hoped to get good answers to this one when FAA personnel appeared in front of the House Transportation Committee, which conducted hearings on the subject. We wound up with more questions. If there’s an answer, it’s a complicated one that appears to involve a lack of cohesive policy in the FAA and a shortage of inspectors, a too-cozy relationship with the companies it regulates. There’s also concern that the FAA never truly understood the nature of MCAS, but then again, there’s evidence that many project engineers at Boeing didn’t either.
4. Why did Boeing not offer totally transparent guidance and training materials on MCAS?
Boeing’s explanation for this, that it didn’t think such guidance was needed, fails to pass the smell test. A more believable argument, though one Boeing couldn’t admit to even if it were true, is that a big part of airlines’ operating costs are in training its pilots. With no additional training required to hop from one model of 737 to the next, the plane will cost airlines less to operate. Which, of course, means more sales.
3. Why did Boeing continue to stand behind the plane even after it knew that there was a serious problem it needed to address and that more such accidents were a distinct possibility if the plane continued flying?
This might be another question that everybody knows the answer to but Boeing can’t admit. The most palatable possibility is that it hoped that a low-key communications approach would provide all the additional training needed to help 737 Max crews avoid MCAS-related disaster. That’s the most charitable interpretation we can come up with, and it’s a damning one.
2. How will Boeing make the plane airworthy?
This is perhaps the single most vexing issue facing the 737 Max program. Initially, it was thought that a relatively simple software fix might be the ticket, but as time has passed, it has become clear that there’s nothing simple about coming up with a fix for it. One solution floated this past week was the installation of a second MCAS system in all 737 Max models. Why is that idea so chilling to us? And every fix the plane maker comes up with will be scrutinized to see if such a fix should have been an obvious feature when Boeing initially fielded the Max.
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1. Is the 737 Max program history?
The answer to this question is almost certainly, no. There’s a history of planes that have survived flaws to regain the public’s trust, as well as that of the pilots who fly it. The most noteworthy example is of the 737 itself, which 25 years ago suffered two tragic loss-of-control accidents caused by the rudder going into full deflection for reasons still hotly debated. The FAA mandated a redesign of the rudder system—Boeing installed the fix in more than 3,000 planes in the field—and pilots were trained in how to recover from such a loss of control. We’re betting that the 737 Max will fly again. When that will happen, however, how the system gets fixed, who gets implicated in the fiasco and what happens to them, is anybody’s guess.