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As the Boeing 737 MAX hit its peak, it seems like Boeing has lost the narrative. How did the newest 737 family member, dubbed the "gamechanger" become such a headache for the manufacturer and operators?
 

Back in 2011, time and money were of the essence for Boeing. As Airbus came out with the A320neo, Boeing’s management made the decision to act fast and, for competitive reasons, simplistically. Instead of developing a new narrow-body that would have competed with the re-engined Airbus A320, the American manufacturer decided to follow in Airbus‘ footsteps and also slap on new engines on their star, the 737. Yet times changed, as safety requirements and systems did so as well. But for the 737 MAX to stay competitive, Boeing decided to introduce minimal changes to the aircraft.

The A320 made its commercial debut in 1988 and with it, brought a revolution inside the cockpit – fly-by-wire systems and a side-stick changed the way pilots were controlling aircraft. The Boeing 737, while a very robust and reliable airframe, was old. It made its commercial debut in 1968 with Lufthansa, making it a 43-year-old frame in 2011. Bobby, as Lufthansa nicknamed the 737 in 1968, was already re-engined three times before the MAX. The newest 737 brought exceptionally great operating economics for airlines, yet in terms of technology inside the cockpit – it had an empty hand. That bluff of cards seemingly paid off, at least in the short-term.

Two years later after the Boeing 737 MAX first made its commercial debut with Malindo Air, the industry is debating when the aircraft will return to service after two fatal crashes claimed the lives of 346 people. The short-term gamble, which made the MAX the “fastest-selling airplane in Boeing history”, backfired. Where money was saved prior to commercial entry, more money was lost after the type was forced to sit on the ground.

But together with time, the company has changed, at least according to Boeing. The manufacturer has established a “permanent Aerospace safety Committee”, whose main responsibility will be to overlook the “safe design, development, manufacture, production, operation, maintenance and delivery” of any future Boeing products.

Yet the biggest problems are with a product that the company has already released.

Asking for exceptions

Documents, obtained by The Seattle Times, showcased that Boeing argued against some of the requirements about critical safety alerts on board, asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make an exception to some of its rules. The requirements, outlined as Flightcrew alerting, amongst many, mandated that:

1.     Alerts must abide a prioritization hierarchy. At the bottom of the list are advisory alerts – they help “increase flight crew awareness“ under certain conditions.

2.     Warning and caution alerts must, coupled with two more requirements, “provide a timely attention getting cues”, communicated via “at least two different senses”, combining “aural, visual or tactile indications”.

3.     The alert function must “minimize the effects of false and nuisance alerts” and they must prevent signals that are “inappropriate or unnecessary”.

4.     The aforementioned alert function must also provide a way for the crew to suppress the alert, which can “interfere with the flightcrew’s ability to safely operate the airplane”. If the alert is suppressed, “there must be a clear and unmistakable” announcement that the alert “has been suppressed”.