Money, lies and cover-ups - The saga of the 737 MA - Kosmos Radio 94.1 FM

Money, lies and cover-ups - The saga of the 737 MAX

Yanna Smith

Following the deaths of 346 people in two crashes five months apart, what emerged was a cover-up, a rush job and the blatant use of political and financial influence that placed Boeing in the centre of a storm, from which it is yet to emerge. The latest figures taken from a December survey in the United States, indicate that 40% of regular fliers are unwilling to fly on the Boeing 737 MAX. In the same month, Boeing fired its Chief Executive and temporarily shut down the factory that makes the MAX. Dennis Muilenburg walked away from the company with US$15 million in pay and bonuses, along with US$80 million in stock, pension benefits and share options. This, after the company at first tried to place the blame on the pilots of the two ill-fated aircraft, pilots who were not trained on the particular, apparently deadly system, and who were not aware of its existence in the aircraft.
When the Indonesian airline, Lion Air, crashed on 29 October 2018, preliminary investigations indicated that the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was not included in the flight manual and was omitted from crew training, was to blame. The system is known as a ‘flight control law’, in other words, software which has been written into the MAX’s flight control system. It mimics pitching behaviour, or angle of flight, similar to the 737 New Generation aircraft – which came just before the MAX. Essentially, if it detects that the aircraft is in manual flight with flaps up, such as on take-off and it senses a high angle of attack (nose of the aircraft is pitched high) it adjusts this angle making the nose pitch down, literally, a nose dive. This is what happened on Lion Air and again on 10 March last year when Ethiopian Airlines took off. A total of 346 people died.
The MAX was grounded worldwide on 18 March 2019 by aviation regulators even though the American Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) deemed the MAX airworthy on 11 March, a day after the Ethiopian crash.
The grounding of the aircraft spelled disaster for Boeing. Its most popular model, the action affected 387 aircraft operating almost 9 000 flights a week for 59 airlines across the world. All orders were also placed on hold. According to the BBC, Boeing reported that orders for the MAX had dwindled to 54 aircraft, down from 893 in 2018. Airlines were opting for the Airbus A320. CNBC reported in July last year that the European aircraft manufacturer Airbus had delivered 389 A320 aircraft in the first six months of the year. Boeing’s losses for 2019, according to CNBC, are estimated at a 23% decline in revenue from 2018 and profits to drop 81%. The crashes cost the company US$8 billion – thus far.
Congressional and other government department hearings, high-level investigations and in-depth reporting by the especially the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have since brought to light that Boeing had in fact hidden information about issues with the MCAS system, at least a year before the Indonesian crash.
The Wall Street Journal’s Andy Pasztor reported that an international panel of air-safety regulators were in September last year, preparing a report that would change the rules for the certification of jets. What they found is that the FAA had delegated its authority to Boeing to assess the safety of flight-control measures. Moreover, the Administration had also failed, two years earlier, before the MCAS was designed to be even more sensitive, not shared the relevant data with foreign aviation authorities and further, that it had relied on mistaken assumptions on how pilots would react to flight control emergencies. He reports that the panel found systems on aircraft should be government-certified and that those certifications “require not only vetting the reliability of essential software, but ensuring that average pilots can react promptly and appropriately handle emergencies stemming from mechanical or computer malfunctions”. The FAA, the panel said, must be involved in new on-board systems.
According to Dominic Gates of the Seattle Times, the panel “questioned how systems on the MAX were certified as a derivative of a now 50-year-old aircraft design”. The report, Gates writes, “points to glaring shortcomings in how Boeing’s 737 MAX was certified as safe, with the company effectively auditing its own design and the FAA unable to fulfil its oversight role”. The MCAS system was not properly evaluated in the certification documents that Boeing submitted to the FAA.
An earlier report, published in March last year, showed that less than a week after the second crash, the FAA had found that Boeing had submitted an “inadequate technical description” of the MCAS, “lacking full details of when the system was activated and the extent of its power to push an airplane nose down”. And to further compound matters, “Boeing employees working on the certification of the airplane on behalf of the FAA faced ‘undue pressure’ from managers who prioritised costs and schedule”.
According to the New York Times, Boeing had also not informed the FAA that the system was altered dramatically, “making MCAS riskier and more powerful, and that the Administration’s officials were completely unaware of those changes”. “Conflicts of interest” were also cited and the panel found that the FAA should “review its staffing levels at its Boeing office in Seattle as well as reviewing the Boeing office that allows company employees to perform certification work”.
And then internal communications from Boeing came to light.
Reuters reports that the company’s then Chief Technical Pilot Mark Forkner had said that the MCAS system was “running rampant” in a flight simulator session.
“The messages indicate that Boeing withheld damning information from the FAA which is highly disturbing,” Peter DeFazio, the Chair of the US House of Representatives Transportation Committee said.
Forkner had said in one text message “I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly)” and another staff member responded saying “it wasn’t a lie, no one told us that was the case” regarding an issue with MCAS. Forkner admitted that “there are still some real fundamental issues”. He added that “he was working on jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training” that he had got accepted by the FAA.
Forkner, no longer employed by Boeing, invoked his Fifth Amendment rights when documents were subpoenaed by the American justice department.
The Seattle Times reported that Forkner had urged the FAA to keep information about the errant MCAS system out of pilot manuals and MAX training courses.
“Are you OK with us removing all reference to MCAS from the Flight Crew Operating Manual and the training as we discussed, as it’s completely transparent to the flight crew and only operates WAY outside of the normal operating envelope,” Forkner wrote to the FAA on 30 March 2016 (sic). After having convinced the FAA, Forkner travelled the world to convince foreign regulators to certify the MAX. After this, it was removed from all pilot training.
DeFazio said that “this is not about one employee; this is about a failure of a safety culture at Boeing in which undue pressure is placed on employees to meet deadlines and ensure profitability at the expense of safety.”
Muilenberg appeared before Congress at the end of October. An email was read from a worker to the head of Boeing’s 737 production team which read: “For the first time in my history with Boeing I would be hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing airplane”. Muilenburg told the hearing that Boeing’s MAX production line was working at a high rate at the time but, when pressed, could not say why the production was not cut back. He was also questioned as to why, with no back-up to alert pilots when the angle of the aircraft was off, they only had four seconds to take back control before MCAS kicked in.
“We would do it differently if we knew what we know today,” he told the hearing.
Boeing had successfully lobbied regulators to keep any explanation of the system from manuals and training. So the pilots did not know. And could not respond adequately.
According to Christine Negroni, aviation author and regular contributor to CNN and the New York Times on aviation matters, it is not entirely correct to assume that there was a lack of oversight at Boeing due to the American-specific ‘integration’ of business and politics.
When asked, Negroni said, “The easy answer is yes. There appears to be a lack of full oversight at Boeing. But the assumption that business and politics explains it all, is not complete. The issue with oversight and certification of Boeing is a complex one because many factors come into play, including politics and international trade.
“What has come to light since the crash of Lion Air flight 610 is that Boeing was under considerable time pressure during the design of the MAX, the company’s newest version of the Boeing 737, which has been around since the 1960s. A special department of Boeing called Office of Delegated Authority was authorised to act on the Federal Aviation Administration’s behalf and approve certain aspects of the design, which it did. The crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia seem to indicate that in some cases, that firstly, Boeing’s approval of aspects of its design was based on incorrect assumptions and/or incomplete analysis and secondly, certification conducted by the FAA was also flawed, either because it didn’t have the correct information from Boeing, or because it didn’t understand it, or both.”
Boeing however, demonstrated strong influence and political and/or economical power and this caused a fear of retaliation and a full lack of independent oversight on safety and new software and mechanisms in its aircraft.
Negroni agrees. “It is important to remember hindsight makes clear what was not knowable at the time. And by that I mean to say that most people don’t do what they know to be unsafe. They can be convinced by themselves or others that their worries are unfounded. Only after something unexpected happens does the decision get reviewed. So you can see why an unbiased, outside review, by the FAA or some other entity is so important. Independent experts are free from manufacturers’ creation-bias and bottom-line focus.”
But Boeing had more than just money and political influence. According to Negroni, commercial power is a factor. She explains: “Boeing has a reputation and prestige going back a century. It is a very confident engineer/designer/safety specialist who would credit his/her opinion over the opinion of a superior working at a company with such a storied past. Even government workers at the FAA would be likely to yield to the opinions of Boeing’s far larger engineering staff. Technology companies like Boeing pay well and offer career opportunities. The FAA cannot compete. So, one might expect government workers to second-guess themselves before second guessing a Boeing engineer, sometimes, to the detriment of safety.”
But what of our safety, as passengers, as aircraft become more digitised? Negroni says this is the major challenge going forward.
“A further issue is the increased complexity of the modern airliner. It is no longer a machine, but a machine infused with software operated systems. The modern airliner operates at a level of complexity that most pilots probably do not and cannot fully understand. When things go wrong, they must quickly figure out what this complex computer system is doing and react appropriately. This is a big challenge for 21st century aviation.”
But the checks and balances at the FAA are full of holes…
Negroni says: “To understand what’s happening at the FAA regarding certification, one needs to understand that manufacturers (and not just Boeing, but all manufacturers who require certification to sell their products) have lobbied Congress to do more of their own certification in order to move products more quickly and easily to market. Certification is an expensive and time-consuming process. The FAA has long endorsed the idea of designating authority to manufacturers because it does allow the agency to shed the cost of conducting all certification itself.
“In the spring 2018, the FAA’s then-administrator Dan Elwell said if the FAA took back the entire job of certifying airliners, it would cost more than a US$1 billion and require 10 000 more FAA employees. Who knows whether it is true, some say the numbers could have been pulled out of thin air…. If government can push this burden and cost off to the manufacturers, it will and it does.”
“But the most recent legislation giving even more power to the companies requiring FAA certification was opposed by the FAA itself. It was members of Congress who passed the newest version.”
Reports are that Boeing lobbied heavily to have this passed.
Negroni told Kosmos 94.1 News that the factors of political and economic power are factors indeed.
“Yes, they are factors, not the only factors, as I have described, but certainly factors that should make air travellers wonder if the industry is meeting the high standards we all expect. The certification of the Boeing 737 MAX suggests the answer is no.”
So what about us, tucked away in unimportant southern Africa?
Of all the airlines landing in Windhoek, including Qatar, KLM, Ethiopian, Comair, SAA and Eurowings, all besides Air Namibia, operate Boeing aircraft. Only Comair responded to questions from Kosmos 94.1 News with regard their operation of aircraft where public support has dwindled to 60%.
William Smook, a senior consultant with Comair said: “The safety and confidence of our customers and personnel is always our priority and will not be compromised. We remain confident in the safety of the Boeing 737 family. We will consider reintroducing the 737 MAX 8 to service once we have approval from all the relevant regulatory authorities, and only after we have installed and tested any upgrades to the flight systems. In addition, we would ensure that any additional training, that may be required, is completed.”
According to Linden Birns, managing director of Plane Talking, an aviation public relations consultancy, “the only airline in southern Africa that is affected by the 737 MAX saga is Comair, which has ordered eight of them. It received its first one two weeks before the Ethiopian Airlines accident and it has been grounded ever since the fleet was withdrawn from service worldwide following the crash.”
The MAX is grounded and Boeing is losing millions if not billions of dollars. And the road ahead is no less bumpy. Birns explains that “every country in the world - including Namibia - will need to agree to the criteria for approving and recognising the airworthiness of the 737 MAX before it is cleared to return to commercial service. Until the 737 MAX saga, countries like SA and Namibia would follow the lead of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) or the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). If they had certified an aircraft or an engine or a new system, then the other countries would recognise and accept those certifications. As a result of the revelations about the relationship between the FAA and Boeing, this model is now broken, as is the trust that other countries had in the FAA and the integrity of its certification of the 737 MAX.”
He continues by saying that ‘For the global aviation industry to work properly, it cannot have a scenario where some countries recognise the airworthiness certification of an aircraft while other countries do not. As a result, the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which represents the airlines, and the UN International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), which sets global regulatory and safety standards for civil aviation, have been encouraging countries around the world to urgently find a common acceptable standard for approving and accepting the 737 MAX certification.”
The ultimate question is: Do you trust Boeing enough to put a loved one on one of their aircraft? It is a question Boeing will have to answer for you, sooner rather than later.
Boeing did not respond to enquiries from Kosmos 94.1 News for comment.