This year hasn’t been a wonderful one for the airline industry. There have been pilot strikes, drone sightings delaying passengers for numerous days, as well as the end of one of the biggest travel companies in the world –Thomas Cook. But, perhaps one of the most significant stories of 2019 is that of Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, and one of the biggest names in the business.
Boeing has a long legacy in airline manufacturing and that means most people expect the company to be fairly flawless, especially its products. However, some cracks have been exposed in 2019, starting with the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019, which involved the new Boeing 737 Max 8, the latest model in the famous 737 line.
This was not an isolated incident. In late 2018, a Lion Air flight crashed off the Indonesian coast, again shortly after take-off, and the aircraft was again the 737 Max 8. Clearly there was a problem with the Max 8 model. These were significant crashes, as all passengers and crew were lost in both cases.
As it turned out the problem lay in Boeing’s Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. This system is intended to prevent the aircraft from stalling and uses a single sensor at the front of the plane. It was a tool designed to avert disaster that instead caused it.
What happened at Boeing that this faulty system managed to find its way into the aircraft? The simple answer is that it was there to entice airlines to buy the Max 8. According to Colin Horgan, “Boeing set out to ensure the design of the 737 Max allowed it to share a common Federal Aviation Authority ‘type certificate’ with its predecessors.” The thinking behind this was that current 737 pilots would easily qualify to fly the Max 8, and that would enable airlines to save on pilot training in addition to the fuel savings that the Max 8 promised.
However, the engineers ran into a problem with the Max 8 engine size, because they were much bigger than in the original 737, so they had to be placed in a more forward position. However, this meant that “in a steep climb, the engines would create lift — and that it would handle differently than its predecessors.” The MCAS system was supposed to compensate for this.
The FAA didn’t review the MCAS, which it should have done, instead it handed the responsibility to Boeing based on the fact that the two had for many decades a great relationship. But then Boeing changed the MCAS late on in the plane’s development, and in such as way that the final version was missing a critical safeguard.
Boeing did this to fight off the challenge from Airbus and its A320Neo. Darryl Campbell wrote at The Verge, “Boeing focused on speed instead of rigour, cost-control instead of innovation, and efficiency instead of transparency.”
The ultimate cost of this attempt to win the market was several hundred lives. It also shows us that whilst we have witnessed the big tech companies like Amazon and Facebook come under fire for flouting, or playing with, the regulatory system, this is something that has spread into other sectors, and in this case one where people’s lives are at risk. I’d think twice before getting on a Boeing 737 Max 8 flight, and I’m sure that I am not alone.