Rewriting the aviation software to cure what caused the fatal plunges of two Boeing 737 Max planes in Indonesia and Ethiopia — killing all 346 people aboard both flights — may be proving easier than correcting lapses in confidence for Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration that have followed.
Blame for both air disasters has focused on software that controls a key flight-control system on the new generation of 737s called MCAS, short for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which pushes the airliner’s nose down when sensors detect risk of a stall. In both crashes, the system engaged and flight crews failed to regain control to pull out of the automated dives. Investigation has shown unfamiliarity among some flight crews with handling an MCAS malfunction.
Grounded following the second crash in March by the FAA and other international aviation authorities, the return of about 350 Max aircraft to service — and the delivery of the Renton-built 737s now stacking up — requires a successful software fix and assurances surrounding the full training of pilots.
Earlier this month the FAA’s new chief, Stephen Dickson, tested a Boeing 737 Max flight simulator updated with the new software, though there were no reports on the software’s performance, according to an Associated Press report. The FAA is expected to clear the 737 Max’s return to service by the end of the year.
Recent reports in the news, however, indicate a software fix may not be enough to restore the confidence of airlines, foreign aviation authorities and the flying public.
Already, regulators in Europe, Canada and India have said they may not sign on to the FAA’s reauthorization immediately, taking more time for their own reviews, the same AP story reported.
And this week, The Washington Post reported that a federal investigation of a whistleblower complaint has concluded that FAA safety inspectors who worked on the training requirements for 737 Max pilots were themselves “unqualified” and that the FAA may have misled Congress on that issue during hearings and written testimony earlier this year.
“FAA’s official responses to Congress appear to have been misleading in their portrayal of FAA employee training and competency,” Special Counsel Henry Kerner wrote in a letter to President Trump, and that information from the FAA “diverts attention away from the likely truth of the matter: that they were neither qualified under agency policy to certify pilots flying the 737 Max nor to assess pilot training on procedures and maneuvers.”
Nor does it build confidence that a former Boeing official — a chief technical pilot on the Max program, has invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination after he was asked to turn over documents to federal prosecutors investigating the air disasters, The Seattle Times reported earlier this month. Seeking constitutional protection could be a legal maneuver, experts told the Times; or it could be seen as a tacit admission of guilt.
One glaring revelation in the Times report was that the FAA had approved Boeing’s training regimen for 737 pilots preparing for the new Max planes: an hour of training on an iPad about the differences between the two planes, with no reference to MCAS.
While the Trump administration has made a crusade of deregulation, viewing it as taking the shackles off all manner of industry to foster the creation of “JOBS, JOBS, JOBS,” this kind of lax oversight by the FAA of the aerospace industry — and the airline industry, for that matter — has been building for decades and ultimately spells disaster for all involved.
As it obviously already has.
The FAA is the American public’s watchdog, responsible for ensuring public safety. Boeing is responsible to its shareholders of course, but that responsibility includes delivering a product that has the confidence of its airline customers and the public. That point will be driven further for Boeing as it begins making billions of dollars in payments for lawsuits and settlements to the families of those who died and to the airlines who have lost business because of the grounding of 737 Max fleets.
More than a software fix, Boeing and the FAA need to renew a commitment to regulation that protects public safety but also Boeing’s standing in the industry and the jobs it provides.