By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.
Yesterday, an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 passengers on board.
The crash occurred less than five months after a Lion Air jet crashed near Jakarta, Indonesia, also shortly after takeoff, and killed all 189 passengers.
Both jets were Boeing’s latest 737 Max 8 model.
The Wall Street Journal reports in Ethiopian Crash Carries High Stakes for Boeing, Growing African Airline:
The state-owned airline is among the early operators of Boeing’s new 737 MAX single-aisle workhorse aircraft, which has been delivered to carriers around the world since 2017. The 737 MAX represents about two-thirds of Boeing’s future deliveries and an estimated 40% of its profits, according to analysts.
Having delivered 350 of the 737 MAX planes as of January, Boeing has booked orders for about 5,000 more, many to airlines in fast-growing emerging markets around the world.
The voice and data recorders for the doomed flight have already been recovered, the New York Times reported in Ethiopian Airline Crash Updates: Data and Voice Recorders Recovered. Investigators will soon be able to determine whether the same factors that caused the Lion Air crash also caused the latest Ethiopian Airlines tragedy.
Boeing, Crapification, Two 737 Max Crashes Within Five Months
Yves wrote a post in November, Boeing, Crapification, and the Lion Air Crash, analyzing a devastating Wall Street Journal report on that earlier crash. I will not repeat the details of her post here, but instead encourage interested readers to read it iin full.
The key point I want to pick up on from that earlier post is this: the Boeing 737 Max includes a new “safety” feature about which the company failed to inform the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). As Yves wrote:
The short version of the story is that Boeing had implemented a new “safety” feature that operated even when its plane was being flown manually, that if it went into a stall, it would lower the nose suddenly to pick airspeed and fly normally again. However, Boeing didn’t tell its buyers or even the FAA about this new goodie. It wasn’t in pilot training or even the manuals. But even worse, this new control could force the nose down so far that it would be impossible not to crash the plane. And no, I am not making this up. From the Wall Street Journal:
Boeing Co. withheld information about potential hazards associated with a new flight-control feature suspected of playing a role in last month’s fatal Lion Air jet crash, according to safety experts involved in the investigation, as well as midlevel FAA officials and airline pilots.
The automated stall-prevention system on Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 models—intended to help cockpit crews avoid mistakenly raising a plane’s nose dangerously high—under unusual conditions can push it down unexpectedly and so strongly that flight crews can’t pull it back up. Such a scenario, Boeing told airlines in a world-wide safety bulletin roughly a week after the accident, can result in a steep dive or crash—even if pilots are manually flying the jetliner and don’t expect flight-control computers to kick in.
Notice that phrase: “under unusual conditions”. Seems now that the pilots of two of these jets may have encountered such unusual conditions since October.
Why did Boeing neglect to tell the FAA – or, for that matter, other airlines or regulatory authorities – about the changes to the 737 Max?
Well, the airline marketed the new jet as not needing pilots to undergo any additional training in order to fly it.
Why Were 737 Max Jets Still in Service?
Today, Boeing executives no doubt rue not pulling all 737 Max 8 jets out of service after the October Lion Air crash, to allow their engineers and engineering safety regulators to make necessary changes in the ‘plane’s design or to develop new training protocols. In addition to considerable potential huge legal liability, from both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes, Boeing also faces the commercial consequences of grounding some if not all 737 Max 8 ‘planes currently in service – temporarily? indefinitely? -and loss or at minimum delay of all future sales of this aircraft model.
Over to Yves again, who in her November post cut to the crux:
And why haven’t the planes been taken out of service? As one Wall Street Journal reader put it:
If this tragedy had happened on an aircraft of another manufacturer other than big Boeing, the fleet would already have been grounded by the FAA. The arrogance of engineers both at Airbus and Boeing, who refuse to give the pilots easy means to regain immediate and full authority over the plane (pitch and power) is just appalling. Accident and incident records abound where the automation has been a major contributing factor or precursor. Knowing our friends at Boeing, it is highly probable that they will steer the investigation towards maintenance deficiencies as primary cause of the accident…
In the wake of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, other countries have not waited for the FAA to act. China and Indonesia, as well as Ethiopian Airlines and Cayman Airways, have grounded flights of all Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, the Guardian reported in Ethiopian Airlines crash: Boeing faces safety questions over 737 Max 8 jets. The FT has called the Chinese and Indonesian actions an “unparalleled flight ban” (see China and Indonesia ground Boeing 737 Max 8 jets after latest crash). India’s air regulator has also issued new rules covering flights of the 737 Max aircraft, requiring pilots to have a minimum of 1,000 hours experience to fly these ‘planes, according to a report in the Economic Times, DGCA issues additional safety instructions for flying B737 MAX planes.
Future of Boeing?
The commercial consequences of grounding the 737 Max in China alone are significant, according to this CNN account, Why grounding 737 MAX jets is a big deal for Boeing. The 737 Max is Boeing’s most important plane; China is also the company’s major market:
“A suspension in China is very significant, as this is a major market for Boeing,” said Greg Waldron, Asia managing editor at aviation research firm FlightGlobal.
Boeing has predicted that China will soon become the world’s first trillion-dollar market for jets. By 2037, Boeing estimates China will need 7,690 commercial jets to meet its travel demands.
Airbus (EADSF) and Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China, or Comac, are vying with Boeing for the vast and rapidly growing Chinese market.
Comac’s first plane, designed to compete with the single-aisle Boeing 737 MAX and Airbus A320, made its first test flight in 2017. It is not yet ready for commercial service, but Boeing can’t afford any missteps.
Boeing has made significant inroads in China with its 737 MAX family. A dozen Chinese airlines have ordered 180 of the planes, and 76 of them have been delivered, according Boeing. About 85% of Boeing’s unfilled Chinese airline orders are for 737 MAX planes.
The 737 has been Boeing’s bestselling product for decades. The company’s future depends on the success the 737 MAX, the newest version of the jet. Boeing has 4,700 unfilled orders for 737s, representing 80% of Boeing’s orders backlog. Virtually all 737 orders are for MAX versions.
As of the time of posting, US airlines have yet to ground their 737 Max 8 fleets. American Airlines, Alaska Air, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines have ordered a combined 548 of the new 737 jets, of which 65 have been delivered, according to CNN.
Prior to Sunday’s Ethiopian Airlines crash, Boeing already faced considerable potential legal liability for the October Lion Air crash. Just last Thursday, the Hermann Law Group of personal injury lawyers filed suit against Boeing on behalf of the families of 17 Indonesian passengers who died in that crash.
The Families of Lion Air Crash File Lawsuit Against Boeing – News Release did not mince words;
“It’s pretty asinine for them to put a system on an airplane and not tell the pilots who are operating the airplane, especially when it deals with flight controls,” Captain Mike Michaelis, chairman of the safety committee for the Allied Pilots Association, told the Wall Street Journal.
The president of the pilots union at Southwest Airlines, Jon Weaks, said, “We’re pissed that Boeing didn’t tell the companies, and the pilots didn’t get notice.”
The aircraft company concealed the new system and minimized the differences between the MAX and other versions of the 737 to boost sales. On the Boeing website, the company claims that airlines can save “millions of dollars” by purchasing the new plane “because of its commonality” with previous versions of the plane.
“Years of experience representing hundreds of victims has revealed a common thread through most air disaster cases,” said Charles Herrmann the principle of Herrmann Law. “Generating profit in a fiercely competitive market too often involves cutting safety measures. In this case, Boeing cut training and completely eliminated instructions and warnings on a new system. Pilots didn’t even know it existed. I can’t blame so many pilots for being mad as hell.”
Additionally, the complaint alleges the United States Federal Aviation Administration is partially culpable for negligently certifying Boeing’s Air Flight Manual without requiring adequate instruction and training on the new system. Canadian and Brazilian authorities did require additional training.
The consequences for Boeing could be serious and will depend on what the flight and voice data recorders reveal. I also am curious as to what additional flight training or instructions, if any, the Ethiopian Airlines pilots received, either before or after the Lion Air crash, whether from Boeing, an air safety regulator, or any other source.