Boeing Insists Its Planes Are Safe. So Why Is the FAA Ordering Fixes?

As the U.S. becomes the last country to ground the 737 Max, pilots say Boeing was quietly scrambling to improve its safety.

People stand near collected debris at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 near Bishoftu, a town southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 11. (Michael Tewelde/AFP/Getty Images)
People stand near collected debris at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 near Bishoftu, a town southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on March 11. (Michael Tewelde/AFP/Getty Images)

A global credibility crisis has engulfed Boeing in the wake of two horrific air crashes in five months and revelations that the aircraft giant permitted its 737 Max 8 planes to fly even though major fixes ordered by the Federal Aviation Administration won’t go into effect until April. 

On Wednesday, after days of increasing U.S. isolation as one nation after another grounded the 737 Max following Sunday’s crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, U.S. President Donald Trump said he was issuing an executive order doing the same. Only hours before, Canada joined more than 40 other nations in grounding the 737 Max 8 and the larger Max 9. The Canadian government cited satellite tracking data that suggested the Ethiopian crash, which killed 157 passengers and crew, bore similarities to the one in Indonesia last fall in which pilots struggled unsuccessfully to gain control of the 737 Max 8 after takeoff.

Trump’s action, which the president said was based on “new information and physical evidence that we’ve received,” raised new questions about Boeing’s and the FAA’s hitherto defiant stance and whether the company and its regulator were playing down serious issues with the plane.

Some pilots and aviation experts—even those who believe the plane is safe to fly—say Boeing and the FAA have not been fully forthcoming in addressing persistent problems with complex automatic adjustment software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, and that the aircraft builder didn’t even tell pilots about MCAS until after last October’s Lion Air disaster in Indonesia killed 189 people. The software kicks in on its own during takeoff emergencies, and various reports have indicated that some pilots have not understood how it functions.

“There was no notification at all, not until the Lion Air crash,” said Dennis Tajer, a pilot and the spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, the union representing American Airlines, one of two major U.S. carriers that uses the 737 Max 8. “An official [with Boeing] said they chose not to disclose it out of concern they would inundate the average pilot. We said, ‘Inundate us.’”

Tajer told Foreign Policy that at that earlier meeting, which took place a few days after Thanksgiving, pilots raised concerns about single sensors that could misfire—reportedly an issue in the ongoing probe of the Lion Air crash—and he said Boeing’s response was: “We’re going to look into that. We anticipate something happening in the next couple of months.”

On Monday, the day after the second crash, the FAA issued a statement that reaffirmed the plane’s safety, saying that while “external reports” were “drawing similarities between this accident and the Lion Air Flight 610 accident on October 29, 2018 … to date we have not been provided data to draw any conclusions or take any actions.”

But the FAA nonetheless went on to detail design changes to the 737 Max 8 it said it was “mandating” be made “no later than April 2019.” Most had to do with “flight control system enhancements” that had previously reduced pilots’ reliance on memorizing procedures, including MCAS.

An FAA spokesman, Ian Gregor, did not immediately respond to a request for further explanation, instead pointing FP to a Tuesday op-ed in USA Today by a former FAA safety inspector, Jeff Guzzetti, who wrote: “I am stunned that so many civil aviation authorities outside of North America would ‘cry wolf’ and ground their 737 Max aircraft with no hard facts or reasonable circumstantial evidence.”

Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the reason the FAA notification was issued the day after the Ethiopian disaster was that the FAA “has concerns about the installation of the MCAS system and wants to make sure every pilot understands the logic behind it and what to do if it misperforms. That kind of information was not highlighted in the initial manuals and operational guidance when the 737 Max was sent out.”

Goelz told FP the information was originally “buried in the manuals, and the FAA is underscoring that pilots have really got to understand it.” He added that many pilots, including some U.S. pilots, were not made aware of the MCAS until after the October 2018 Lion Air crash, and that trainees in other countries may have lagged further behind. “The training at second-world or third-world air carriers may not be as robust as it clearly is at U.S. carriers,” he said.

Last fall, Jon Weaks, the president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association—Southwest is the other major U.S. carrier that uses the Max 8—told the Seattle Times that his pilots also “were kept in the dark” about the MCAS.

The 737 Max first began flying commercially in 2017, but within only a year and a half the Lion Air 737 Max 8 crashed off Indonesia. Though that investigation is not complete, some indications were that the MCAS might have engaged, pushing the aircraft’s nose down, without the pilots’ knowledge, and they didn’t appear to try to shut it off—or maybe didn’t realize that they could.

Though the Ethiopian Airlines pilot was said to have a substantial number of flying hours, some 8,000, his co-pilot was believed to have had only 200 hours—well below what is required by major Western carriers. According to a preliminary investigation by the Indonesian government last fall based on the black box flight recorder recovered from the Lion Air crash, the pilots on that plane “struggled—in a 10-minute tug of war—against a new anti-stall flight-control system [MCAS] that relentlessly pushed the jet’s nose down 26 times before they lost control,” as Dominic Gates, the Seattle Times’ veteran aerospace reporter, wrote. “Though the pilots responded to each nose-down movement by pulling the nose up again, mysteriously they didn’t do what the pilots on the previous day’s flight had done: simply switched off that flight-control system.”

Asked to comment, a Boeing spokesman, Chaz Bickers, referred FP to a statement from the company on Monday that said Boeing, since the Lion Air crash,  “has been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer.” The company said it had “been working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on development, planning and certification of the software enhancement, and it will be deployed across the 737 MAX fleet in the coming weeks.”

Based on information provided by officials familiar with Boeing’s response to the Lion Air crash, as the company worked with the FAA and its technical crew, it saw that it could improve the plane’s safety by simplifying the emergency procedures—part of the change expected in April.

Among the changes Boeing is making is reducing the control of the plane by automatic software and increasing pilots’ ability to adjust quickly on their own in an emergency.

According to an FAA database reviewed by Politico, pilots in the United States have complained at least five times in recent months about problems controlling the Boeing 737 Max 8, and some of the incidents appeared to involve the MCAS system.

Even Trump got involved in the debate, tweeting a day before his executive order that “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly.”

The question some experts are asking is how the world’s largest aircraft maker has found itself confronting what may be an unprecedented crisis of confidence.

The peculiar history of the 737 Max may supply part of the answer. By Boeing’s own admission, the 737 Max 8 wasn’t really the airplane it dreamed of building: It wanted to design a wholly new successor to its reliable old single-aisle 737 workhorse. But nearly a decade ago, competitive market pressures forced the aircraft giant into delivering an upgrade to its 737 fleet rather than a brand-new plane. In 2011, Boeing’s arch-rival, Airbus, had barged into the U.S. market by persuading American Airlines to order 260 of its A320neos.

Boeing needed to respond relatively quickly with a rival model.

So in the next five years, Boeing upgraded its older 737s, strapping on a big new engine in a more forward position that created more lift. This in turn raised concerns about the nose of the plane pitching too far upward—and the possibility of stalling—right after takeoff. To counter that, experts say, Boeing created the MCAS, an automatic stabilizer that would pitch the nose down.

But even as the 737 Max became Boeing’s best-selling model around the world, the company didn’t do enough to tell pilots about it, according to some critics. And Tajer said at takeoff—one of the most demanding periods of a flight—the MCAS system becomes operable at about 1,000 feet, creating another unexpected demand on the pilot’s attention if the software decides that the nose is too high: “There are all these distractions. Then this machine kicks in and you don’t know it’s on down trim in 10-second bursts. You’re battling that.” Tajer also said that American pilots complained that the MCAS relied on a single sensor, rather than multiple ones.

According to Goelz, “One of the ways Boeing marketed the 737 Max was the modest amount of training up for current 737 pilots. You didn’t have to go back to the Sim [the flight simulator] again and again. It appears to me that some of the pilots flying it do not understand the system and do not understand the steps you needed to take when the system acted the way it did.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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