Boeing 737 MAX crisis: Burned bridges (Part III)
If you have missed the second part of the timeline, check it out here:
When the Ethiopian investigators released the preliminary report, Boeing and MCAS were put on a spotlight. The two accidents were eerily similar and it was obvious – the additional software to prevent the 737 MAX from stalling was at the heart of the two fatal crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia. For Boeing, it meant two things:
Firstly, the update to MCAS itself was the number one priority to get the MAX off the ground. As weeks, and later months, passed after the grounding, Boeing started running out of space to store the manufactured aircraft, as the company still produces 42 MAX planes per month.
Secondly, it had to rebuild the burned bridges throughout the crisis. The public image of the company went down the drain and is yet to recover. Headlines about the production of the 737 MAX and the culture within the company put a burden on the crisis communications campaign, that was already lackluster.
The Boeing 737 MAX situation is truly unprecedented. Previous to this, a full-scale grounding of a jet was a very rare occurrence. Even then, the groundings were lifted rather quickly. With the MAX, Boeing broke its relationship with three main pillars that keep the aviation industry together – aircraft crews, airlines and passengers.
Diverting the blame to pilots
On May 13, 2019, Dallas Morning News revealed the contents of an audiotape they received from a meeting between Boeing and American Airlines pilots. A few weeks after a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX crashed on October 29, 2018, tensions were already at an all-time high.
At the meeting, pilots angrily confronted a Boeing representative, with such comments as: “We flat out deserve to know what is on our airplanes”. The tone and topic in the meeting were very clear – pilots were not happy with the manufacturer or the way it kept MCAS in the dark:
“These guys didn't even know the damn system was on the airplane”.
Even when Boeing did admit that the software, exclusive to the MAX, was a link in a “chain of events” that brought down two airliners, some still believe pilot training was at fault, rather than the manufacturer itself. For instance, On May 15, 2019, Republican U.S. Representative Sam Graves during a House Committee on Transportation & Infrastructure hearing regarding the 737 MAX status stated: „For me, the accident reports reaffirm my belief that pilots trained in the United States would have successfully handled the situation. The reports compound my concerns about quality training standards in other countries”.
At the same hearing, Peter DeFazio, the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, had other beliefs. While Graves highlighted that “the preliminary reports reveal pilot error as a factor in these tragically fatal accidents”, DeFazio questioned the viewpoint of blaming the pilots:
“Why, until the plane went down, the first plane of Lion Air, it wasn’t even in the manual that this automated system existed?”
DeFazio added: “How the hell are you [the pilot – ed. note] the redundancy if you don’t know something? There’s something called the startle factor. I’m not a commercial pilot, but I got to tell you, if you’re at a low altitude and the plane starts automatically pitching itself down every ten seconds, there’s going to be a lot of people who are going to have trouble dealing with that”.
Missing alerts in the cockpit
However, as both preliminary reports have highlighted, pilots fought systems onboard the Boeing 737 MAX to the last minute. Lion Air pilots scrambled through a handbook to find out what was happening to their aircraft, according to leaked CVR audio. But the information on how to disable the automatic nose-down movements was not there.
Ethiopian Airlines pilots did disable MCAS, but as mentioned in Part II, due to the inherent design issues with the horizontal stabilizer controls, pilots were unable to trim back manually. In a move out of desperation to save the 737 MAX, the pilots re-activated electrical trim inputs to help them regain control of the aircraft.
All while the stick shaker was active and multiple data readings contradicted each other on the Captain’s and First Officer’s flight displays, adding even more complexity to the situation.
But one data reading was missing – the AOA Disagree alert. Boeing, in two separate Press Releases, deemed that the alert was not crucial for “the safe operation of the airplane”. However, the very same alert is a standard feature on every Boeing 737 NG/MAX.
When Boeing started deliveries of the MAX in 2017, it noticed that alert was not working due to a software issue. The AOA disagree alert would only be active if the airline opted and paid for an AOA indicator.
Boeing will include the AOA disagree alert in the newest software update to the 737 MAX, begging the question whether the alert is truly not needed in order to operate the aircraft safely?
Nevertheless, on May 16, 2019, the manufacturer presented the newest software update, which includes a revised pilot training program, for the FAA’s approval.
One of the update test flights was attended by Dennis Muilenburg, in order to prove that the new software on the 737 MAX was very safe:
Dennis Muilenburg, @BoeingCEO, experienced first-hand our MCAS software update performing safely in action during a 737 MAX 7 demo flight today.— The Boeing Company (@Boeing) April 3, 2019
More about the proposed MCAS software update here: https://t.co/TJrfcYG4ok pic.twitter.com/OcCiMnc7I5
No timeline for return
On June 26, 2019, the FAA found issues with the update. As a result, the grounding is set to continue into 2019, with some guessing that a Boeing 737 MAX will fly a commercial flight only in Q1 of 2020.
FAA’s pilots identified a new issue related to the software. The problem is separate from MCAS, but it also tried to push the plane’s nose down after the onboard computer received erroneous flight data, according to Bloomberg.
Two days after the FAA announced a new problem with the MAX, reports surfaced that Boeing outsourced software engineers from India that worked for $9 per hour. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Labor indicates that the minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour.
While the purchasing power in the two countries differs, the matter of fact is that Boeing clearly wanted to save money on labor costs – software engineers in the United States do not earn $1.75 more than the minimum wage.
Boeing has denied outsourcing engineers to develop MCAS or code the faulty AOA disagree alert, as reported by Bloomberg. However, ongoing software issues with the MAX, as highlighted by the FAA and cost-cutting measures behind its development put Boeing in a very bad light.
The Chicago-based manufacturer hopes that the groundings will lift in Q4 of 2019, but according to the company “actual timing of return to service could differ from this estimate”. FAA’s acting administrator, Daniel Elwell, is also not handing out promises and says that they “don’t have a timeline”.
On July 8, 2019, EASA, the acting aviation safety regulator in Europe, has also laid out a five-point plan of the jet’s return to European skies. EASA has found an additional issue with the autopilot, which the FAA reportedly has missed.
Understandably so, the aircraft crews of the 737 MAX were angry about the situation.
The airlines, operating the troubled airliner have also expressed their concerns. Some have sued Boeing asking for compensation, as grounded jets not only do not generate money, but airlines have to pay parking and other fees too.
For example, a low-cost carrier from Saudi Arabia flyadeal has decided not to go through with its order of 50 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft – instead switching to its main rival, the Airbus A320 family.
Just recently, on July 29, 2019, Ryanair announced their Q1 financial results. The Irish airline highlighted that the grounding will negatively impact their growth rate and subsequently profits, which are already dwindling. One of the most outspoken CEO’s in aviation, Michael O’Leary, expects Boeing tol cover Ryanair’s losses related to the groundings. O’Leary also expects to have 58 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft by summer of 2020, but it could be 0 if “Boeing don’t get their s***t together pretty quickly with the regulators”.
The two low-cost carriers have joined a long list of airlines that are unhappy with the way Boeing has handled the situation and how the day that regulators lift the ban on the MAX is always so close, yet so far away, as the jet encounters further issues.
But the list does not consist of airlines only: pilots, families that have lost loved ones on the two fatal crashes, and multiple United States government authorities, including the Senate, have sued and launched criminal investigations against the aircraft manufacturer.
Southwest Airlines passengers have sued Boeing – accusing the manufacturer and Southwest, one of the biggest operators of the MAX, of conspiring to hide “the defect in this model, and to assure the public that the 737 MAX 8 was safe (it was not), and later that it was fixed (it was not)”.
However, lawsuits will not be the biggest issue for Boeing. Although the company will have to defend itself in multiple court cases and likely to pay out compensations that could end up being in the billions, the company is simply too big to fall apart like De Havilland after the Comet groundings, for example.
Boeing is one of the biggest lobbyists in the United States, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In 2019 alone, the company spent $7.2 million to influence political decisions in the United States. The trade war between China and the United States has put Boeing in the spotlight, as the manufacturer was negotiating a deal back in June 2019 for wide-body aircraft worth $30 billion with Chinese airlines. In the United States alone, the company employs more than 150 000 people, not including thousands of jobs overseas.
Simply put, Boeing is too important for the United States and the aviation industry itself to declare insolvency as a result of the crisis. No president would want to associate his term with the fact that a company, which once employed over 150 000 people, closed the doors on its factories.
But the way that Boeing has handled the crisis in the eyes of the public is threatening to tear down the trust that the aviation industry has built since the 20th century, when safety was still in early infancy.
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