Boeing 737 MAX saga: How the FAA nearly brought the global aviation industry to its knees

Ashwini Phadnis | | Updated on: Oct 18, 2019
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A year ago, Lion Air’s Boeing 737 MAX airplane crashed, killing all 181 people on board. Six months later, this March, another Boeing 737 MAX, belonging to Ethiopian Airlines, crashed, killing all 149 people on board. Soon after, every Boeing 737 MAX around the world was grounded. The blame for these crashes is being laid squarely at the door of the US aviation regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The controversy over why an aircraft with a flawed design was allowed to fly is still as fresh as the sorrow and pain of those who lost their family and friends on the two flights.

The FAA is the final authority in certifying all aircraft manufactured in America as being safe for flying. Boeing, being an American company, has to get this final certification from FAA before the aircraft can begin commercial operations.

Many international airlines, including Indian carriers Jet and SpiceJet, ordered the aircraft after it was certified to be safe for flying by the FAA.

The fatal crashes and the FAA’s failure to ensure the safety of the Boeing MAX is now snowballing into a scandal that has tarnished the credibility and authority of the American regulator.

Norms thrown to the wind

A meeting of the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) in March concluded that the FAA had failed to stick to its own rules. The review was scathing in its comments, noting that the regulator was following out-of-date procedures and lacked the manpower and expertise to properly oversee design alterations.

The JATR, also said there was "an inadequate number of FAA specialists" in place to test the new design of the 737 MAX and that they "had inadequate awareness" of the system implicated in the crashes.

It added that officials oversaw design changes "in a way that failed to achieve the full safety benefit". Worse, there are allegations that the FAA relied on some experts from Boeing before certifying the company’s aircraft.

Stringent testing

Engine and aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus put new technology and aircraft through intense testing before global authorities such as the FAA certify them. These include the ‘Fan Blade Off Test’ to ensure that the engine is at its maximum thrust and rotational speed when the fan blade “breaks”. The test is carried out to check if the pieces of a broken blade will be caught successfully by the fan case, preventing them from going inside the engine and causing an explosion. During the test, which costs millions of dollars, one engine is destroyed.

Then there is the fatigue test, which examines how the main aircraft structure responds to everyday operations over a long period of time. This covers different stages of an operation, such as taxiing, take-off, cruising and landing.

Yet, even after such stringent tests, the conclusions drawn after the two Boeing 737 MAX planes crashed, was that the aircraft’s design was faulty. This is something that the FAA should ordinarily have caught, had it followed its own safety procedures more diligently and professionally.

Sully’s take

Captain Sullenberger, more popularly known as Sully, is the pilot who successfully landed US Airways flight 1549 from New York to Charlotte, North Carolina, on the Hudson river, with over 150 passengers on board. The Airbus A320 had lost both engines because of a bird hit. Sully blamed the FAA for the Boeing MAX crashes in a letter to the New York Times Magazine.

“Inadequate pilot training and insufficient pilot experience are problems worldwide, but they do not excuse the fatally flawed design of the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that was a death trap,” Sully wrote to the magazine’s Editor, adding that the MCAS design should never have been approved, neither by Boeing, nor by the FAA.

The MCAS is a computerised system that was installed in the Boeing 737 MAX to prevent the plane’s nose from going too high and resulting in the engine stalling. It was unique to the MAX and isn’t present in any other Boeing 737 plane. It is activated without any action by the pilot, and could lead to a sudden descent of the aircraft, catching the pilots off guard.

“Where Boeing failed, the FAA should have stepped in to regulate but it failed to do so. Lessons from accidents are bought in blood and we must seek all the answers to prevent the next one,” Sully’s letter declared.

Pilots kept in the dark

Pilot associations complained that both the FAA and Boeing had done next to nothing to ensure that pilots were aware about the anti-stall feature and its workings.

Read also: New potential software issue in Boeing 737 Max alarms test pilots

“I think it is unconscionable that a manufacturer, the FAA, and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models,” one pilot wrote last November in a complaint to US federal authorities. “The fact that this airplane requires such jury rigging to fly is a red flag. Now we know the systems employed are error prone — even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place, and failure modes.”

In other aviation segments there is near unanimity that the FAA should not have given permission for the Boeing MAX to fly, and equally importantly, should not allowed the aircraft to resume operations.

Passenger and pilot fear

Flyers are now averse to flying on the Boeing MAX and some say that even if the plane is allowed to enter service, flyers would be well within their rights to refuse to board the flight. Pilots, too, are sceptical about flying a plane with a dubious safety record.

On its part, IATA, the global aviation body representing the interests of over 150 airlines across the world, has said that any haste in bringing this or any other unsafe aircraft back into service before time could jeopardise passengers’ confidence in aviation being one of the safest modes of transport.

It will also be prudent for the American aviation regulator to remember that the two fatal crashes of the Boeing MAX aircraft have already divided aviation regulators worldwide. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) wants to conduct its own tests before it allows the Boeing MAX to fly again. India, too, has also made it clear that it will be cautious in allowing the aircraft to fly again.

IATA CEO and Director General Alexandre de Juniac has called for a single certification of aircraft. During a global media conference, he said: “The real point is to restore mutual trust among regulators and a complete alignment to ensure that the single certification system works properly as it has done for the past 70-80 years. That is the key priority.”

Now, with aviation safety watchdogs in different countries taking individual stands on the re-entry of the Boeing MAX, it remains to be seen what effect this will have on IATA.

Commercial considerations

Boeing, which has orders for 5,000 MAX aircraft, will understandably be keen to see the plane flying again.

Airlines, too, are facing losses because of the grounding of the aircraft. Already the global cost of grounding across airlines has crossed $ 2.4 billion. Business consulting firm Frost & Sullivan has estimated that the impact of this grounding for all the airlines together would add up to more than $10 million a day. The firm is of the view that if the grounding applies to all aircraft, coupled with a deferral of the more than 400 deliveries planned for 2019, the bill will amount to more than $4 billion in 2019.

Court cases

The grounding has also led pilots from various airlines to sue Boeing for loss of pay. The Southwest Airlines (a US carrier) Pilot Association (SWAPA) has filed a law suit against Boeing for the grounding of the MAX, seeking more than $100 million. The lawsuit alleges that SWAPA pilots agreed to fly the 737 MAX aircraft based on Boeing's representation that it was airworthy and essentially the same as the time-tested 737 aircraft that the pilots had flown for years.

Read more: Boeing offers $100 million to families of 737 Max crash victims

“These representations were false. Boeing's errors cost the lives of 346 people, damaged the critical bond between pilots and passengers, and reduced opportunities for air travel across the United States and around the world,” the lawsuit stated. It adds that the grounding of the 737 MAX has led to the elimination of more than 30,000 scheduled Southwest flights.

This is expected to reduce the airline's passenger services by 8 per cent by the end of 2019, resulting in compensation losses for SWAPA pilots in excess of $ 100 million. Southwest is the largest operator of the Boeing 737 MAX in the United States.

The crashes have also seen Boeing pay out $1.2 million to each of the families involved in the Lion Air crash in Indonesia. In addition, it has also set aside money to pay compensation to airlines that have had to ground their aircraft.

All eyes remain on the FAA and that decision it will take on the future of the Boeing 737 MAX. The decision will have an impact on the aviation industry worldwide, from Boeing, to airlines, to passengers and the thousands who work in the industry. And, of course, it will put the FAA’s credibility to the test.

Published on October 19, 2019

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