SciTech

Boeing under fire for 737 MAX 8

Credit: Courtesy of Eigenes Werk via Wikimedia Commons Credit: Courtesy of Eigenes Werk via Wikimedia Commons

In Oct. 2018, the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 took the lives of all 189 passengers and crew. The plane in question was a Boeing 737 MAX 8, the successor to the widely produced Boeing 737.

An investigation following the crash uncovered a potential design flaw within the MAX 8 line. A system meant to bring the nose of a plane down to prevent stalling, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), was found to be receiving numerous false positives from flight sensors, forcing the nose of the plane down. No matter how often the pilots tried to correct their trajectory, the system would override and reset itself, ending in a fatal crash.

Then, only five months after the first incident, a second MAX 8 crashed under similar circumstances. Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed on March 10, with satellite tracking data revealing that the plane had followed the same up-and-down trajectory as the Lion Air flight. In response, there has been a worldwide grounding of the MAX 8 planes, pending an investigation into the flaw that appears to be causing these fatal crashes.

These incidents have incited concern over the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s reliance on the very companies they’re meant to police. According to an article in The Washington Post, the FAA has delegated the safety assessments, which determine whether or not a plane is safe to fly, to Boeing engineers — a clear case of conflict of interest, but what many believe is a necessary compromise for an underfunded federal organization.

Still, as reported by The Seattle Times, the trust may have been misplaced: the safety assessment Boeing submitted was supposedly filled with errors, a mistake that might have resulted in the two recent crashes.

But why would a company risk the combined cost of a multi-million-dollar plane, hundreds of lives, and their reputation? The answer lies in a single word: competition. In 2010, Airbus (a competing airplane manufacturer) announced a new, more fuel-efficient, more cost-effective plane that threatened the virtual monopoly held by the Boeing 737.

In an effort to stay on top, Boeing launched the MAX series in 2011, but did not receive an FAA certification until March 2017. Here is where things get complicated: in order to cut costs on pilot retraining, Boeing decided to make the new series virtually identical to its predecessor. This allowed pilots to fly the planes with no more than a 13-page guide to aid them in this transition.

Still, some features were updated without the pilots’ knowledge. One such feature was the problematic MCAS, which was not mentioned in that how-to guide. This, not the lack of training, is what has left many pilots with feelings of distrust. They feel that just knowing about the feature would have given them the knowledge they needed to work around its flaws.

Instead, the pilots of these two incidents were left to fight a losing battle with a faulty system, not knowing what was happening as their planes flew into the ground. Although silently patching and updating software is not unusual in many industries, transparency and communication with the crew of a 45-ton airplane should be paramount.

The Senate will convene a hearing on the FAA’s certification of the 737 MAX 8 on March 27, where Boeing executives are expected to testify and explain the actions Boeing has taken. Additionally, the FAA has released a statement indicating that they will be monitoring a follow-up software patch intended to correct the MCAS flaw, but there is no timetable for the 737 MAX 8 to take flight once again.