Boeing made safety optional on its 737 Max to an even greater degree than was previously reported.
One factoid that had come out in previous articles on the 737 Max was that Boeing had made a safety feature that would have alerted pilots to the malfunctioning of the angle of attack sensors an option that an airline could obtain only by purchasing a package of safety upgrades. American Airlines did buy this suite of add-ons. The Wall Street Journal article that broke this story says that getting this alert back was one of the reasons it paid up to get the safety suite.
This matters because the infamous MCAS software system relied on input from that sensor (more accurately, only one of the two angle of attack sensors at any point in time) to decide if and when it needed to push the nose down to prevent a stall. Pilots could have ascertained the sensors were malfunctioning before takeoff, or if they got an alert during flight, they could have disabled the MCAS system, or been ready to do so if the plane started to misbehave.
This basic fact pattern has been revealed to be worse than it first appeared by virtue of Boeing not having been explicit that the angle of attack sensor alerts had been disabled on the 737 Max. Why should Boeing have cleared its throat and said something? Recall that the sales pitch for the 737 Max was that it was so much like existing 737s that it didn’t require FAA recertification or pilot simulator training. But the angle of attack sensor alert had been a standard feature in all previous 737s, meaning buyers would assume it was part of the plane unless they were told otherwise. And on top of that, the non-upgraded 737 Max did have lights in the pilots’ controls for this alert. But they didn’t work unless the buyer had purchased the package of safety extras.
And the proof that Boeing was playing way too cute with its pointed silence about its deactivation of what had been a standard feature? The biggest customer for the 737 Max, Southwest Airlines, had inaccurate information in its pilots’ manual because the airline had mistakenly assumed the angle of attack sensor alerts worked as they had on earlier 737s.
From the Wall Street Journal:
Boeing Co. didn’t tell Southwest Airlines Co. and other carriers when they began flying its 737 MAX jets that a safety feature found on earlier models that warns pilots about malfunctioning sensors had been deactivated, according to government and industry officials.
Federal Aviation Administration safety inspectors and supervisors responsible for monitoring Southwest, the largest 737 MAX customer, also were unaware of the change, the officials said.
The alerts inform pilots whether a sensor known as an “angle-of-attack vane” is transmitting errant data about the pitch of a plane’s nose….
Southwest’s management and cockpit crews didn’t know about the lack of the warning system for more than a year after the planes went into service in 2017, industry and government officials said. They and most other airlines operating the MAX learned about it only after the Lion Air crash in October led to scrutiny of the plane’s revised design.
“Southwest’s own manuals were wrong” about the availability of the alerts, said the Southwest pilots union president, Jon Weaks.
The Financial Times confirmed the Journal’s account:
Southwest Airlines says Boeing did not disclose that certain safety features on the troubled 737 Max aircraft were not “operable”, raising further questions about poor communication between the manufacturer and its customers ahead of its shareholder meeting on Monday.
Southwest, the largest global carrier with 737 Max aircraft in its fleet, told the Financial Times that it believed it had functioning alerts installed on its Max aircraft so that its pilots would be made aware when the jet’s two angle of attack (AOA) sensors disagreed, signalling a malfunction….
Aviation experts said it was not clear why Southwest was unaware that it did not have functional disagree alerts in its aircraft. American Airlines, another big US Max carrier, had both safety options installed and its pilots union was reassured by Boeing after the Lion Air crash that they were working, American said.
It gets better. After the Lion Air crash, Southwest asked Boeing to activate the alerts. The FAA considered having Southwest ground its 737 Max planes until they determined if pilots should have additional training on these these so-called AOA disagree alerts. Again from the Journal:
Less than a month after the Lion Air jet went down, one FAA official wrote that AOA-related issues on MAX jetliners “may be masking a larger systems problem that could recreate a Lion Air-type scenario.”
About two weeks later, other internal emails referred to a “hypothetical question” of restricting MAX operations, with one message explicitly stating: “It would be irresponsible to have MAX aircraft operating with the AOA Disagree Warning system inoperative.” The same message alluded to the FAA’s power: “We need to discuss grounding [Southwest’s] MAX fleet until the AOA Warning System is fixed and pilots have been trained” on it and related displays…
Within days, the concerns were dismissed….These people concluded that the alerts provided supplemental pilot aids rather than primary safety information, and therefore no additional training was necessary. Boeing and the FAA continued to publicly vouch for the aircraft’s safety.
It’s not hard to infer that the FAA didn’t want to go to war with Boeing over a safety concern that Boeing claimed would only come into play in very rare circumstances. No wonder foreign regulators are signaling they don’t trust the FAA and will do their own checks before they approve the plane for operation.
Boeing says it plans to retrofit all 737 Max aircraft so that will operate as part of its planned fixes to the MCAS software.
And Boeing is in more hot water. American Airlines pilots think the amount of training on the 737 Max recommended by Boeing is inadequate. From the Financial Times:
Meanwhile, as Boeing works to complete a software fix to prevent such crashes in future, pilots at American Airlines have said the training proposed by the aircraft maker, and endorsed by the FAA, does not go far enough….
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots on American, one of the biggest US Max carriers, said in written comments submitted to the FAA that training should go beyond a one-hour iPad course originally provided to Max pilots. But they stopped short of demanding that training on flight simulators be required before the plane can be ungrounded. Requiring simulator training would substantially delay the return of the Max to service.
A second Financial Times story on Boeing says that 737 Max customers who had planes grounded are likely to hit Boeing up for their losses:
US and European airlines have warned that the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max will shave hundreds of millions of dollars from their combined profits this year, raising the prospect that the aircraft manufacturer will face significant costs for compensating customers….
The total amount of compensation due to 737 Max operators is impossible to estimate, according to airlines, aerospace analysts and aviation industry sources, since the date when the plane can return to service around the world is still unknown….
Compensation was “unlikely to be in the form of a pile of cash”, said one person briefed on the process, noting that Boeing had in the past offered discounts on the price of future aircraft purchases or agreed to defer purchases to adopt a timetable that better suited carriers. A combination of both is also possible.
And CNN reports, with little additional detail, that the FAA has opened a new Boeing 737 Max investigation based on employee whistleblower filings:
The day after Ethiopia’s minister of transportation released a preliminary crash report on Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, four Boeing employees called an Federal Aviation Administration whistleblower hotline that allows employees and the public to report aviation safety issues.
A source familiar with the matter says the hotline submissions involve current and former Boeing employees describing issues related to the angle of attack sensor — a vane that measures the plane’s angle in the air — and the anti-stall system called MCAS, which is unique to Boeing’s newest plane.
Not only is Boeing looking worse with every passing account, but its management and board are losing the PR battle. At a minimum, the board needs to hire a serious-looking firm to conduct an investigation, and plan to fire some executives. But Boeing, as part of a duopoly, recognizes that its customers have nowhere to go….at least for the next few years, which might as well be eternity as far as MBAs are concerned.