Bluster in the face of failure


Boeing, the world’s largest aircraft maker, is in a serious jam. On Thursday civil aviation regulators from Brazil, Canada, China, and EU will join US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) officials to review Boeing’s efforts to fix the software on it 737 Max aircraft, two of which have crashed in Indonesia and Ethiopia killing 346 passengers and crew.

All 400 of the 737 Max aircraft Boeing has sold from an original order book of over 5,000, are currently grounded. Given the US lawsuits piling up against it not simply from bereaved relatives but also airlines facing massive losses, it was not surprising Boeing was slow to admit that the cause of both crashes was almost certainly the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Thanks to a false sensor reading, this automatically dived the plane because it wrongly detected a stall.

The problem was compounded by the astonishing fact that not all pilots of the new aircraft had been made aware of the system. When they tried to turn it off, they did not realize that only five seconds later it would kick in again and resume the dive. The workaround was to disable automatic flight and fly the aircraft manually but this recourse was not made clear. Moreover, the Boeing 737 Max was billed as a brand new aircraft but in fact it is the fourth generation of a plane which first flew way back in 1967. Because of this, the “type rating” which pilots must undergo before they can fly a completely new aircraft was often skimped. But what pilots and their airlines didn’t know was that because of important design changes, the 737 Max had a habit of raising its nose even more than expected in a climb. The MCAS system was developed to counteract this but relied on only one of the aircraft’s two climb rate sensors.

Boeing stonewalled anxious pilots after the first Max crash. It continued to hold out for 48 hours after the second. In this it was backed by the FAA until international counterparts, led by China, all grounded the new 737s operated by their own carriers. It has since emerged that, to save money, the FAA left much crucial certification work to Boeing itself or used outside contractors many of whom were former Boeing employees.

While Boeing has seriously harmed its reputation by the way in which it has tried to slide out from under the blame, the real culprit here has to be the US regulator. The plane maker introduced a critical error which it was the FAA’s duty to spot. They have failed to do their job properly. The FAA chief Daniel K Elwell told Congress that it had been delegating approval since the 1920s and now outsourced 90 percent of its certification. To bring the work back in-house would mean 10,000 new employees and cost $1.8 billion a year. He claimed defensively that the FAA had put in 110,000 man-hours checking out the 737 Max.

This is humbug. Time and again around the world, leading businessmen, politicians and regulators claim that everything had been done to prevent a disaster. But the disaster still happened. Therefore, very clearly everything had not been done. Instead of trying to bluster, why don’t these people put their hands up and admit their terrible mistakes?