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Wednesday 24 April 2019

tortoise take • opinion

Straighten up and fly right

Can Boeing atone for 346 deaths?

By Giles Whittell

Next Monday, Boeing will host its annual shareholders’ meeting in Chicago. It promises to be fraught. The meeting will be the first of its kind since a 737 Max 8 jet crashed in Ethiopia, killing 157; and the first since another plane of the same design flew into the sea off Indonesia, killing 189.

Initially, after each crash, Boeing kept silent as questions lingered about the safety records of two airlines operating in poor countries. Later it had to admit its own systems were at fault. The company appears to have done its best to prevent crash victims’ relatives attending the meeting – people like John Quindos Karanja, from Nairobi, who lost his wife, daughter and three grandchildren in the Ethiopian crash – but the agenda is still liable to be overtaken by big, existential questions.

Who really keeps us safe when we fly? What happens when aircraft makers and aviation regulators get too close? Will Boeing survive? And why has its chairman not resigned?

So far, astonishingly, the last of these questions has barely been addressed. One group of Boeing shareholders says it will demand that Dennis Muilenburg, currently chairman and chief executive, be stripped of his joint role and keep only one of them. Another wants the head of the company’s audit committee fired for failing to foresee safety risks in the latest redesign of the 737. Some will be hoping that with enough public contrition and private compensation a line can soon be drawn under the 737 affair, but that may not be possible. Nor should it be.

Muilenburg has effectively conceded that both crashes were caused by a malfunctioning system that was supposed to stop the Max 8 stalling. He has said of the failure and the proposed fix: “We own it, and we know how to do it,” but it would be wrong to take him at his word.

Publication of the first official crash report is still months away. Even so it is already clear from Boeing’s statements and former employees’ remarks that the technical and management failures behind these tragedies ran deep.

About 15 years ago both the world’s biggest aircraft manufacturers faced the same challenge: how to tweak their best-selling short-haul jets to make them carry more passengers and burn less fuel. Both came up with the same solution, which was to equip the planes with bigger, more efficient engines. For Airbus this was easy: when taxiing, its A320 sat high enough off the ground to hang the new engines from the wings without changing other aspects of the design. For Boeing it was more complicated. The 737, whose basic shape has not changed much in 50 years, sits low over the tarmac, meaning less room for new engines.

By 2011 Boeing had already worked around this problem once, creating an unusual, squashed-looking engine nacelle for the 737-300. To compete with the newest A320 it had to decide between a full re-design and another fix. It chose the latter, raising the engines relative to the wing.

This produced a tendency for the aircraft’s nose to tilt up when using maximum power on take-off. Boeing compensated with the now-notorious Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which deploys the tail flaps when needed to point the plane’s nose down.

There were four problems with the MCAS:

  • It was designed to cut in automatically, “without pilot input”.
  • It used a single electronic sensor to decide whether to deploy the flaps. Most modern aircraft safety systems use two or three.
  • Once deployed, it was almost impossible to override.
  • Until after the Indonesian crash, pilots were not told as a matter of course that the system even existed. There was no mention of the MCAS in the pilot training materials that came with the Max 8.

Nothing is for sure in airline safety. Airbus, like Boeing, has learned this the hard way. In 1988, attempting to demonstrate how Airbus’s supposedly revolutionary computerised flight management system would not allow pilot error to crash a plane, a test pilot flew a brand new A319 into woods at the end of the runway at the Le Bourget air show.

In 2009 a bigger Airbus carrying 228 people dived into the Atlantic after two pilots and the autopilot misunderstood readings from a faulty airspeed indicator, and stalled the plane.

The lesson for many commercial pilots has been that too much automation switches off the humans who are supposed to be in charge on the flight deck. There is, by the same logic, a safety argument in favour of Boeing’s long-term strategy with the 737: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And don’t complicate the cockpit if you can avoid it. US civil aviation has certainly been doing something right: the last serious air crash in North America was ten years ago.

Variants of these arguments are sure to be used by Boeing’s lawyers as they seek to limit the damage from compensation claims and a class action lawsuit that accuses the company of putting “profitability and growth ahead of airplane safety and honesty”.

Boeing may even claim its 737 design decisions have played a role in bringing aviation to the masses in the developing world: being low makes it easier to load luggage without conveyors, to load people without jetways, to maintain engines without lifts.

But the real arguments in the months ahead will be about costs and cosiness – cost-saving by skimping on design and training, and cozying up to the Federal Aviation Administration, the world’s most powerful aviation regulator, to streamline the certification of new planes.

Last week an engineer who worked on the Max 8’s fight controls told the New York Times that Boeing “wanted to a) save money and b) to minimise the certification and flight test costs”. Another said of the 2011 decision to stick with the 737 airframe rather than build a new plane: “We all rolled our eyes… Nobody was quite perhaps willing to say it was unsafe, but we really felt like the limits were being bumped up against.”

A corporate culture in which no-one felt able to voice fears that airline passengers’ safety was being compromised will surely face a reckoning now. The same ought to be true of a regulator that failed – or refused – to see what was happening from the outside.

At the time, the FAA certified the Max 8 with minimal delay and with much of the data collection and analysis allegedly outsourced to Boeing’s own staff. It didn’t require any training sessions on flight simulators for pilots switching to the new model from older ones – just a 90-minute session on an iPad. And it has already approved the extra training Boeing has offered pilots since the Ethiopian crash.

In Boeing’s race to get the Max 8 fleet flying again, the FAA seems less than a disinterested observer. Its relationship with the company ought to be the subject of federal scrutiny but Ralph Nader, the consumer rights champion, fears Congress will slow-roll that process because its members are so fond of Boeing’s political donations.

Nader is not disinterested either. His grandneice died in the Ethiopian crash. But he may be right.

Boeing is Boeing, an icon of American know-how. It built the planes that Churchill knew would be needed to win the Second World War. Joined at the hip to the Pentagon throughout the Cold War, it helped win that too.

This is an American manufacturer that has never been mocked by Europeans for shoddy workmanship, unlike General Motors. It has never been circled by rivals looking for an acquisition, unlike McDonnell Douglas. Yet it has never been as vulnerable as it is now.

Standard Oil, IBM and Kodak all looked invincible once. They were tamed by government, competition and tech. General Electric was a favourite of Wall Street for a century until sloppy thinking brought it low.

GE’s problem was that its executives stopped focusing on what it did best. Boeing has not made that mistake; it has made a worse one, betraying the trust of its customers and the public by trying to disguise cost-savings as safety measures when the reverse was true. Its initial reaction to both 737 crashes – allowing others to blame sub-par pilot performance and poor maintenance with no evidence of either – has only deepened that perception of betrayal.

It will take years to measure the full cost. Big customers who have suspended orders for the Max 8 are likely to scrap them in favour of similarly-priced planes from Airbus or even China, which is itching to break the Boeing-Airbus duopoly. That duopoly has done little to foster real innovation in aircraft design, except arguably in Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner – but even airlines queuing to buy the 787 may now think twice after reports of corner-cutting at its assembly plant in South Carolina.

Boeing will survive in some form. Whether it can ever restore its reputation is another matter. The American century in aviation is coming to an end. It has been an age of virtually uninterrupted dominance for Boeing, but also for the FAA, whose role as the regulator to which the rest of the world turns for international standards can no longer be taken for granted. If other countries look elsewhere for guidance, that will carry its own risks. Under FAA rules, Boeing’s planes have flown billions of passengers safely to their destinations. Its atonement for the avoidable deaths of 346 people is only just beginning.

For & against


“The history of our industry shows most accidents are caused by a chain of events. This again is the case here, and we know we can break one of those chain links in these two accidents. As pilots have told us, erroneous activation of the MCAS function can add to what is already a high workload environment. It’s our responsibility to eliminate this risk. We own it and we know how to do it… We remain confident in the fundamental safety of the 737 MAX. All who fly on it – the passengers, flight attendants and pilots, including our own families and friends – deserve our best. When the MAX returns to the skies with the software changes to the MCAS function, it will be among the safest airplanes ever to fly.” 

Denis Muilenburg, Boeing Chairman and CEO


“If we don’t get this right, if we don’t end the cozy relationship between the patsy FAA, the captured agency, which has been documented for years, and the Boeing company, 5,000 of these fatally flawed planes will be in the air all over the world with millions of passengers. An aircraft manufacturer, no matter what its past safety record, is not allowed two or more free disasters… Those planes should never fly again. Those planes, the 737 Max 8, must be recalled.”

Ralph Nader, consumer rights advocate and former US presidential candidate, at a press conference announcing a lawsuit on behalf of his grandneice, Samya Stumo, who as aboard Ethiopian Airlines’ flight 302


“Boeing misled investors about the sustainability of Boeing’s core operation – its Commercial Airplanes segment – by touting its growth prospects and profitability, raising guidance, and maintaining that the Boeing 737 MAX was the safest airplane to fly the skies. Boeing made these statements all while concealing the full extent of safety problems caused by the placement of larger engines on the 737 MAX that changed the handling characteristics of the 737 MAX from previous models.”

Class action lawsuit filed on behalf of Boeing shareholders on April 10, 2019

Further reading

  • This film from Vox packs into six easily-digested minutes a lot of information on why the Boeing 737 Max 8 carries risks that the Airbus A329neo doesn’t.
  • The New York Times has published this detailed account of Boeing’s race to compete with the A320neo
  • Fly By Wire, by William Langewiesche, an experienced pilot and Vanity Fair’s roving foreign correspondent, is a brilliantly-written exposition of the risks of aircraft automation