By William J. Furney
The most feared airplane in the world is not some dodgy model from Russia, China or other part of the world with a poor aviation safety record, but from the birthplace of powered flight itself: the United States and planemaker Boeing’s troubled 737 Max.
I’ve probably flown it quite a few times, as one of my regular, European airlines (Norwegian) operated them, but didn’t think anything other than “shiny new plane with cool interior mood lighting”. Others may have thought the same, but 346 people who boarded this new, updated model of the company’s workhorse plane didn’t live until the end of their flights, but perished shortly after they began — including my longtime Indonesian partner, who took an early morning flight from Jakarta to her work on nearby islands but never arrived.
It turned out that in a swift effort to get the plane to market and turn it into the giant American planemaker’s next big cash cow — one that would keep it flying high in profits for decades to come — they didn’t bother to redesign the plane, a lengthy and costly proposition, but instead just stuck on bigger, more fuel-efficient engines in a more forward position that then altered the craft’s centre of gravity and made it unstable. Instead of adding hardware to fix the problem, Boeing relied on software, and some — many, it turns out, pilots didn’t even know it was there and how it worked.
Two crashes and hundreds of lives later, Boeing has now announced a software upgrade to its deadly flight-stablisiation issue and is hoping for approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and related aviation authorities around the world, who were ahead of the FAA in grounding the Max following the dual tragedies and many questions remain about the US agency’s close relationship with Boeing and how and why it certified the Max to fly.
Why no one at Boeing has been fired — most especially boss Dennis Muilenburg, who will have been in the job four years in July — is a mystery. The company did not even make as standard a warning light on its Max jets that would alert pilots to a malfunctioning sensor that could activate the plane’s software-controlled anti-stall system that the crew of the dommed Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights battled with and lost, as the computer repeatedly kept pitching the nose down unnecessarily until the planes plunged into the ground.
Boeing thought the indicator light — essential for the safety of hundreds on board a typical flight — was standard, but it was not. And the firm also didn’t think the lack of the light, in the Max planes of airline customers who didn’t pay extra for it, represented any kind of safety issue. After the Lion Air disaster, a Boeing Safety Review Board looked into the matter of the warning light, and its absence in some Max jets, and “confirmed Boeing’s prior conclusion that it did not” present a safety problem for those planes.
Even Max simulators don’t work.
With about 350 airlines around the world flying Boeing’s Max plane, of which there are several variants — 7, 8, 9 and 10 — but that have been parked and grounded since March, when aviation regulators around the world and, belatedly, the FAA, imposed bans on the craft, the flying public is undoubtedly eager to know if, and when, it will ever take to the skies again — and if they might be on the Max. If the green light is given, it’s likely many people will probably and for the first time be inspecting their bookings to see what type of aircraft they’ll be travelling on.
The airlines are desperate to get their Maxes back in the air ahead of the impending summer travel season, and are losing millions in the interim, but — sorry — no one is interested in your profits before the safety of human lives. I know from having booked two upcoming flights with Norwegian — one to the Canary Islands and the other to the United States — and having seen its Max advisory, that the heavily indebted, loss-making Nordic carrier will not be offering refunds for passengers who book one of its flights and find out it’s a Max plane and decide to cancel.
This week, Boeing said that after its flight-control software, known as MCAS, update for the Max, it had flown the plane for over 360 hours on 207 flights without incident, and was working with the FAA to address its concerns and hopefully get the plane recertified. Given the concerns over the agency and its links to Boeing, many other regulators will have their own questions for the company, including the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and others.
“With safety as our clear priority, we have completed all of the engineering test flights for the software update and are preparing for the final certification flight,” said Muilenburg. “We’re committed to providing the FAA and global regulators all the information they need, and to getting it right. We’re making clear and steady progress and are confident that the 737 MAX with updated MCAS software will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly. The accidents have only intensified our commitment to our values, including safety, quality and integrity, because we know lives depend on what we do.”
How will they get it right on a rush-job, modified, flawed plane that has already claimed hundreds of lives? Who will be the first to step aboard?