Airlines have always liked to claim that safety is not negotiable. However, the events surrounding the Ethiopian 737 MAX 8 crash show that this is simply not true. [Ed’s Note an earlier and simpler version of this column was published by online news site Daily Maverick a few days after the EK302 crash]
The Devil in the System
Mary Schiavo, former Inspector General of the United States Department of Transportation, said in a CNN interview that the Boeing 737 has outlived its useful life but is being kept alive because “Boeing has more clout than the FAA” and that is why it still flies in the USA.
It was evident, within minutes of the Ethiopian crash, that there were striking resemblances to the Lion Air crash of 29th October last year. It may be premature to speculate on these crashes in the absence of official findings, but the similarities have been confirmed by the initial Flight Data Recording findings – and they speak volumes.
Boeing’s 737 has been progressively developed through various generations of models. The MAX’s Leap 1B engines changed the handling characteristics and to save Boeing from having to re-certify the aircraft because of the handling differences, and to save airlines buying the MAX from having to spend money on expensive pilot training, the FAA agreed to Boeing’s request to install a system called MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System - a stabilator trim system to automatically trim the nose down when hand flying at low speeds to prevent the plane from stalling.
What Boeing omitted to do was to tell the pilots about the MCAS system and to build in proper redundancy for its data sources. So the 737 MAX relied on the ‘grandfather rights’ from the original B737-100, certified in the 1965, to save Boeing a huge amount of time and money in development and to reduce the training requirements for the operators.
But now the MAX has been described by a retired captain as “an old necklace, with too many charms added.” And this may be the root of the devil in the system.
When the Lion Air MAX crashed into the sea off Jakarta the Flight Data Recorder (FDR) showed that the airspeed indication was wrong and this had caused the MCAS to constantly try to lower the nose of the aircraft, despite the pilots’ best efforts to raise it. Eventually the stab-trim forced the nose so far down that the aircraft dived near-vertically into the sea. And judging from the FDR, plus the radar and satellite returns, this is also what happened to the Flight EK302.
The need for uber-pilots
After the Lion Air crash, Boeing recommended that pilots use the Stab-Trim cut-out switches to isolate a trim runaway caused by the MCAS. If the pilots are properly trained and sharp enough, at the first sign of an uncommanded pitch reduction they can turn the stab trim function off. The passengers should hardly notice the blip.
Shortly after the Ethiopian crash, Donald Trump cast aspersions on the Ethiopian and Lion Air pilots, specifically their failure to use the Stab-Trim cut-off switches. Trump is notably close to Boeing, and his Acting Secretary of Defence, Pat Shanahan, worked for Boeing for 21 years. This close relationship between POTUS and Boeing has caused the Ethiopians to distrust the Americans.
But the quality of the pilots in these two crashes nonetheless poses a real question. Boeing argues that simply switching the Stab Trim off is a basic skill required of all pilots for all 737s, even the fifty year old first generation ones. It is required training for all 737 pilots in the simulator. However no matter how realistic they are, the one thing simulators cannot do is replicate the often violent G forces. When you are porpoising through the sky, finding the switches, removing their protective bar and flicking the two switches requires a cool head.
For passengers, having to hope that their pilot is an unflappable uber-pilot is scant comfort. But in support of the cool head proponents, it is important to note that there have been a number of other incidents reported where the MCAS was successfully neutralised, and these were handled by the pilots applying Boeing’s basic training.
As a side note, for those who reckon that the age of pilotless airliners is imminent, the need for uber-pilots in these instances shows that a ‘fleshware’ pilot will always be required for when the computers run amok.
Profits vs Safety
What these two tragedies have done is shine a spotlight on the age-old conflict between profits and passenger safety. And some airlines have failed the scrutiny.
Understandably, many passengers said that they would refuse to fly in a Boeing 737 MAX until the cause of the two crashes is identified and fixed. The problem passengers faced was how to know if they had been booked on a MAX, and what to do if they had been. For those who asked, I attempted to explain the key visual difference between the two, and that is that the MAX has a sawtooth edge to the back of its engines. But naturally, if there was a possibility of them flying on a MAX, many passengers would refuse to fly on any Boeing 737. Despite this, South Africa’s Comair, and most of the American Airlines, initially refused to ground their Max 8s, presumably on the strength of Boeings claims that any properly trained pilot would simply move the Stab Trim switches to off.
It brings things close to home to know that the Ethiopian MAX’s takeoff immediately preceding its fatal crash had been from OR Tambo Airport, carrying many South Africans. A commentator on www.avcom.co.za said; “If this error [with the MCAS] had happened one sector earlier we would have been clearing up aircraft parts, human remains and debris from the eastern suburbs of Pretoria today.” This explains why Australia and then other countries banned all MAX flights from their airspace, not just their local MAX fleet.
What is, however, hard to swallow is that Comair and all the American Airlines initially refused to ground the MAX. Yet Comair has only one MAX 8, and even with the exposure of a single MAX, being just 4-percent of their fleet, Comair chose to put profits ahead of passenger safety.
Not knowing what the problem buried in the MCAS system is, and relying solely on uber pilots to be sufficiently cool headed to switch the system off, is simply not good enough, particularly in the information age. It was only when the overwhelming opprobrium bubbling through social media impacted Comair that they changed their minds. Plus perhaps the realisation that if there had been a third crash, it would have wiped out the airline.
This mass of public opinion is almost certainly what finally forced the Americans to re-actively ground all MAX 8 and 9s. The weight of public opinion indicates that the world simply no longer trusts Trump’s America, its Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, to be honest about safety. It is significant that Ethiopia insisted that the ‘black boxes’ not be sent to the USA for analysis.
The fallout from the Trump administration’s grounding of the MAX is profound. As long as the airlines chose to ground the aircraft themselves, Boeing was not responsible for their losses. But the grounding by the FAA makes Boeing responsible for the airlines’ losses for all 371 MAX planes flying worldwide. There is nothing more expensive to an airline (short of a crash) than a brand-new airliner sitting idly on the ground. Norwegian has already said it will send the bill to Boeing after it was forced to ground its fleet of 18 MAX 8s. The other airlines will no doubt follow suit.
The scale of this disaster for Boeing is colossal. The narrow body MAXes make up much more than half of Boeing’s total airline sales. Boeing has nearly 5,000 737 MAXs on order and they are producing them at the incredible rate of 57 new planes each month. It’s no wonder that U$25 Billion was wiped off Boeing’s market cap by the Ethiopian crash.
The war between Airbus, with its A320 family, and Boeing with its heritage 737 design, is intense. These two crashes have shown how far Boeing had to go in its attempts to keep the 737 competitive. Major Boeing MAX orders are mooted to be switching to Airbus, which must be smirking all the way to the bank.
It is also a great loss to Africa’s safety record – after years of being the most dangerous place to fly, Africa cleaned up its act and had not a single fatal airline accident for the past two consecutive years.
But more worryingly, these MAX crashes remind us how both the airframe manufacturers and the airlines are able to pressurise the regulators and make ill-judged decisions about putting profits ahead of passenger lives.