Unlike small planes, airliners hardly ever crash. Their safety record isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough to that mark that when one does go down, the world takes notice. And when one crashes, especially when it’s under mysterious or particularly horrific circumstances, the aviation world comes together to figure out just how to prevent such accidents in the future. And more often than not, we’re successful in doing just that. That’s why commercial air travel on per mile basis is the safest mode of transportation the world has ever known.
In the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 and Lion Air 610, the answers we’re coming up with to explain why those two new Boeing 737 Max planes went down are beginning to come into focus, and that story is disturbing for its own reasons. A new flight control subsystem called MCAS, designed to alter the 737’s control response, is the prime suspect, and it’s looking more and more likely that it was the cause of both accidents. But how MCAS got certified so quickly and how Boeing prepared 737 Max pilots to fly the new derivative and how Boeing and the FAA responded to the crisis—by essentially denying there was a problem right up until the moment that President Trump ordered the planes grounded…well, that tale is deeply troubling.
So even though we have a good idea of what was responsible for the crash and while most observers are confident a fix will be found, our trust in the institutions we’ve come to depend on to keep air travel safe has been eroded.
Of course the institutions in question are Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration. Boeing’s reputation as a builder of planes is so strong its pilot fans have a saying: “If it’s not a Boeing, then I’m not going.“ For decades there have been two sides in the global aircraft-design philosophy debate, one side taking Boeing, manual systems, pilot-centered design and tradition, and the other side taking Airbus, more automation, systems-centered design and innovation. In truth neither company has a monopoly on any of these things. But Boeing’s place in the argument as the sensible, conservative and smart choice is at stake, and its reputation is in for a serious hit.
That’s because, in the wake of the second crash of a 737 Max in five months, Boeing’s communications regarding the disasters have been problematic, to say the least. The communications gap is striking. In this case, Boeing was literally working on a major fix to the MCAS problem presumably discovered during the Lion Air probe. That plane crashed in late October of 2018. At the same time as it was feverishly working to fix the brand-new system, the company was saying there was nothing wrong with its planes and that there was no risk in continuing to fly them as they were. There’s an obvious disconnect here.
For the FAA’s part, it needs to acknowledge that it knew all the details about the process that Boeing used to turn a 50-plus-year-old design into a big-engined modern day fuel miser, because they did know. They were, in fact, actively involved in that ongoing certification review, despite the agency ceding much approval authority to Boeing employees who are designated representatives. And that process involved compromises, which is not unique to the 737 Max. Every derivative design entails compromises. But how the company created the modifications to turn the 737 into the Max and how the FAA approved those changes is a story that is already coming out, and the details, including, according to one report, engineers on the MCAS project not being aware that others changed the design in ways that presented far greater risk to the safety of flight. Those changes, it needs to be said, are suspected as root causes of both crashes.
The FAA’s response after the Ethiopia crash was to support Boeing’s claim that the planes were airworthy and to stick to that position, but if they knew there might have been an issue with MCAS, it surely wasn’t saying so. It nearly literally took an act of Congress—well, of the Executive Branch—to get the FAA to back down from its position of supporting the continued operation of the 737 Max. The United States was last in the world to ground the planes, and regardless of whether you think that was a sound decision or not—we think it was not—the optics of that are as bad as they get.
Whether it’s true or not, it looked for all the world (and toall the world) that Boeing and the FAA were choosing to protect corporate, economic and national interests over safety. So when the Ethiopian government declined to send the data recorders back to the United States and Boeing for analysis, opting instead to hand them over to France’s BEA instead of to the NTSB, it was hard not to read into that decision that Ethiopia was distrustful of how the investigation would be handled. The BEA is a premier investigative body, so it’s hard to fault Ethiopian on that count, but that it didn’t automatically turn to the United States and its preeminent manufacturer in this case is worrisome.
I’m confident that we’ll get to the bottom of this disaster, but in the process our institutions need to be straightforward with the public about their findings and transparent along the way so the message we all get is that truth in aviation investigations is paramount and sacrosanct. And if there were mistakes made in building or approving the plane, we need the manufacturer, Boeing, and the regulator who approved them, the FAA, to own those mistakes. Taking responsibility for them will make it clear to all what happened and why it happened while also accepting blame for a slow and inadequate response after the fact, though reputations, careers and more are likely at stake here.
Regardless, everyone must come clean about what happened and why, and the sooner that happens the better. Only then can these institutions begin to restore the trust the traveling public has in how transport planes are built and how they are approved, a trust that has already been eroded yet remains critical to restore, because honest reporting plays a major role in keeping the world flying safely.