With Boeing’s 737 MAX Continuing to Face Worldwide Grounding, the Airplane Manufacturer Faces Tough Questions

December 12, 2019

 

Following the crash of two Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in the span of only five months, a worldwide grounding continues to grip the airplane manufacturer. Despite renewed commitments to safety and transparency, Boeing continues to face global scrutiny, mounting international investigations and legal battles, and decaying customer faith in Boeing.

 

In October 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed off the coast of Indonesia 13 minutes after take-off, killing all 189 passengers and crew members aboard. While the final report on the accident, released by Indonesia’s Komite Nasional Keselamatan Transportasi (KNKT), attributes the crash to a multitude of errors, particular blame is placed on the aircraft’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). This software is embedded in each Boeing 737 MAX’s flight control system. Design changes to the 737 MAX, specifically with the placement of its larger, more fuel-efficient engines, caused the plane’s nose nose to shift skyward while mid-flight. Too much lift on the aircraft’s angle of attack (AOA) ran the risk of the engines stalling. Thus, the MCAS was designed to compensate for this danger and force the nose of the plane downward into a more stable position.

 

However, on Flight 610, the MCAS and its sensor malfunctioned, resulting in the system producing incorrect flight data. Ultimately, it was these miscalculations that caused the plane to begin nosediving uncontrollably. In roughly one minute, the plane dove more than 5,000 feet before smashing into the Java Sea at approximately 350 kts, or roughly 402 mph. In response to the accident, both the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing issued warnings to airlines operating the 737 MAX in order to avoid a similarly fatal tragedy.

 

These notifications did little to prevent the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March of 2019, killing all 157 people on board, less than five months later. While the investigation is still ongoing, the preliminary report, released by the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority (ECAA), fails to mention the MCAS as a factor in the crash. However, the report does note irregularities with the aircraft’s automatic nose down (AND) trim command. In response, instead of commenting on its potentially unsafe equipment, Boeing has attributed at least partial blame for the accident on the pilots, with CEO Dennis Muilenburg stating, “…in some cases…procedures were not completely followed.” This statement comes in direct contradiction to the findings of investigators, however. Ethiopian transport Minister Dagmawit Moges declared that the crew “performed all the procedures repeatedly provided by the manufacturer but was not able to control the aircraft.”

 

With 346 dead, governments and civil aviation authorities across the world quickly grounded the 737 MAX, beginning with China and culminating with the FAA preventing the aircraft over American airspace. Meanwhile, Congressional investigations have been launched into how the FAA was able to issue a certificate of airworthiness for the 737 MAX. Several other probes into the company’s financial information and potentially misleading information have also been launched.

 

For its role, Boeing is facing mounting criticism for both its handling of these disasters and potential culpability in not doing enough to avoid tragedy. In May 2019, it was reported in the Wall Street Journal that Boeing knew of problems with its safety alert system a year before the crash in Indonesia. Beyond this, Boeing failed to inform pilots or airlines even of the existence of the MCAS. The company maintains that, while no disclosure about the MCAS was made, the system itself was always embedded into each aircraft, thus ensuring that test pilots flew with this feature in place. Yet, this has done little to quell pilot and crew frustration over this lack of open transparency. Family members of the victims in these crashes are also pursuing legal battles against Boeing, arguing that the company was negligent and provided unsatisfactory instructions on how to solve potential system malfunctions.

 

Boeing customers and shareholders, meanwhile, have begun to turn their backs to Boeing. In the immediate aftermath of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, Boeing (BA) shares tumbled 11% and have been unable to regain its value since. Earnings have also since collapsed by roughly 94% compared to 2018, with further costs for the manufacturer expected to climb into the tens of billions of dollars. Major carriers, including Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, have stated that they will not reintroduce the 737 MAX into service until at least early March 2020. This comes as airlines are forced to cancel thousands of flights and new orders for the 737 MAX remain backlogged. Flyers have also indicated that, were they to know that they were flying in a 737 MAX aircraft, they would be wary to step aboard. Heightened fear and uncertainty have allowed Boeing’s main rival, Airbus, to capture market share and outsell Boeing. Though investors, customers, and passengers have yet to completely abandon the company, confidence has been severely shaken.

 

Though far from being in a state of collapse, Boeing has several tough questions that it must answer in order to remain a world-leader in aerospace. Drastic alterations in company culture, beginning with company leadership, are necessary in order to rebuild trust and increase transparency. Either these changes are made now, or flyers will continue to gamble with their own safety whenever stepping onto a Boeing aircraft.

 

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