What…? A New MAX Issue?

Courtesy Getty Images

Just as it all seems to be good news for Boeing with IAG placing a tentative order for the B737 MAX jet, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has uncovered a new potential risk during simulator tests.

Some carriers such as American Airlines have been optimistic that the grounding would be lifted soon, but the new discovery can only mean pushing the date further down the road.

The FAA has clarified that’s not the priority for now. This was made clear in a statement that it issued: “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline, for returning the Boeing 737 Max to passenger service. The FAA will lift the aircraft’s prohibition order when we deem it is safe to do so.”

The FAA seems determined to reassert itself after being criticized for lacking in oversight following the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines disasters. It sees an important role now in discovering and highlighting potential risks, and has engaged the service of a Technical Advisory Board, which is an independent panel.

On the latest finding, FAA said it is “a potential risk that Boeing must mitigate.”

IAG probably did not see this coming, but it is to be assumed that the order is only as good as when the MAX is fully certified to be airworthy.

However, each time a new issue surfaces, public confidence sinks to a new low.


No new spin: Boeing sings the same apologetic tune

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The Paris Air Show (June 17 to 23) should provide an opportunity for aircraft manufacturer Boeing to clear the air of any misgiving and doubt that industry players may have of the company’s commitment to production priorities following the B737-800 MAX 8 disasters and the unsavoury stories that have unfolded since the two incidents involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines.

It will be a mammoth effort trying to regain customer trust particularly in light of how many travellers surveyed have indicated they would not ever fly the MAX jet even after the authorities have cleared it for service resumption. So far it is anybody’s guess as to when the grounding will be lifted. The date keeps pushing into the future.

Airlines which own a sizeable fleet of the MAX, having reported the cancellation of thousands of flights since the grounding, may be keen to see it back up in the air sooner. American Airlines which owns a fleet of 24 jets is pre-empting an October date.

But the authorities want to be more conservative this time as they grapple with issues of training and procedures with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) thinking it may be longer than that. Canadian transportation authorities for one are insisting on simulator training which Boeing, the FAA and American carriers think would not be necessary.

Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg all but knows too well the score. Quite wisely he had said of the Paris Air Show: “This is a different show for us, it is not about orders. It is really focused on safety and the safe return of the Max flight.”

Boeing had reported no new commercial aircraft orders in May, although according to Mr Mullenberg, the company had more than 4,000 orders of the MAX jet in backlog. He is expecting to see the aircraft back in the air by the end of the year, but the timeline is still not specific if not uncertain. Reports seem to be ambivalent as to whether the software glitch of the computer system known as MCAS has been definitively fixed or that Boeing is still working on the update.

The hardware may not be as difficult an issue to handle as that which concerns public opinion, perception and reservations. So in doses Boeing is dishing out apologetic messages but falling short of admitting sole responsibility for the tragic MAX incidents.

Mr Mullenberg expressed disappointment that Boeing had not been more transparent with regulators and the public when it discovered a safety light was not operating as designed. He echoed Boeing vice-president Gordon Johndroe who said ahead of the Paris Air Show: “We clearly fell short in the implementation of the AOA disagree alert and we clearly should have communicated better with our regulators and the airlines.”

And, one wonders, what would have had happened then?

Clearly the road ahead for Boeing is marked with PR pointers to appeal to the heart for understanding and perhaps implicitly forgiveness without admitting liability. It knows that the airlines who were operating the MAX before its grounding have much to lose if they do not work together to get the aircraft safely back in the air.

Some more Boeing woes: Shoddy work at manufacturing plant

As Boeing works at regaining the trust of travellers in the B737 Max 8 jet (following the crashes of an Ethiopian Airlines jet and a Lion Air jet in similar circumstances), assuring them that the software fix to the anti-stall system will make it the safest aircraft to fly the skies, new issues that have surfaced aren’t helping.

A New Times report (April 23, 2019) stated that the Boeing factory in North Charleston (South Carolina) that makes the 787 Dreamliner “has been plagued by shoddy production and weak oversight that have threatened to compromise safety.”

Whistle-blowers have pointed out defective manufacturing resulting from faulty parts being installed, debris left on planes dangerously close to wiring beneath the cockpits, and pressure to not report violations. The debris includes tools, metal shavings, Bubble Wrap and chewing gum, and it is alleged that customers had found random objects in new planes.

One airline – Qatar Airways – it seems, was so upset that it has since 2014 bought only planes built in Boeing’s main plant in Everett. It may sound ridiculous, but will travellers now go checking where the Dreamliners operated by other airlines were built, as a supermarket shopper would ordinarily do?

While the public may understand the risk of a mechanical failure of any machine, it is quite a different thing when the problem lies in a culture of not caring enough to ensure that the safety of the traveller comes before all else, that kind of trust that travellers must have in the product such as a plane.

Pushing production to meet deadlines at all cost and compromising safety standards can only rattle the traveller’s confidence. Already more than 50 per cent of Americans have said they will not fly the Max jet, even if the problem has been fixed.

And now the concern is extended to the Dreamliner. What next?

The New York Times report raises many concerns, top of which is how the management had turned a blind eye to complaints by the staff. Some of them alleged they had been punished or fired when they voiced concerns.

Two former managers said they were pushed to cover up production delays and employees were told to install equipment out of order to make it appear production was on schedule. In fact, Qatar’s beef was that Boeing was not being “transparent” about the cause of production delay.

What about the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s role in all this, particularly when in the Max investigations the agency the agency had been censured for allowing Boeing to self-certify?

According to the New York Times report, an FAA spokesman, Lynn Lunsford, said the agency found metal silvers in several planes certified by Boeing as free of debris.

The FAA issued a directive in 2017 requiring that Dreamliners be cleared of shavings before they are delivered. However, it was determined that the issue does not present a flight safety issue.

Boeing has all along insisted the Max is a safe aircraft and that there are procedures in place to correct errors presented by the anti-stall system. The software fix to be implemented is meant to make a safe aircraft “safer”.

Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg, courtesy CNBC

Today Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg echoed the same line, saying on Monday April 29 that the pilots of the fateful Ethiopian Airlines flight did not “completely” follow the although Ethiopian officials said earlier they did but could not control the plane.

Mr Mullenberg said: “When we design these systems, understand that these airplanes are flown in the hands of pilots.” Without saying as much, the competence of the pilots or their familiarity with the procedures has been called into question. “Going forward we have identified a way to improve,” he added, “I am confident that that again will make one of the safest airplanes in the air to fly”

Those words of assurance have since been uttered often and will continue to be repeated as Boeing faces the uphill task of regaining trust in the improved Max jet. More than their airline customers – some of whom have stood staunchly by Boeing – it is the majority of travelling end-users that they need to convince.

Will you take a Boeing 737 MAX flight again?


B737-Max 8: Questions for FAA, Boeing and airlines

Courtesy Boeing

The cause of the two Max 8 aircraft crashes – first involving Lion Air and then Ethiopian Airlines – which led to the grounding of the world’s fleet of the jet has yet to be determined, although the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States (FAA) has said the findings are pointing to similarities in the two incidents. That apart, aircraft manufacturer Boeing is making changes to the control system and will as part of the upgrade install a warning system which was previously an optional feature.

Question: If this is a safety feature, why was it deemed not an essential standard?

Apparently, both the planes operated by Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines did not carry the alert systems. The fact that they are designed to warn pilots when sensors produce contradictory readings suggests a possibility however remote, and pilots would have been better positioned to handle the problem if adequately equipped. It is disconcerting to think that since this safety feature came at a cost, some airlines had chosen not to install it. The lesson has come expensively with Boeing now saying airlines would no longer be charged extra for the installation.

The upgrade by Boeing includes a redesigned software that will disable the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) if it receives conflicting data from its sensors. The MCAS is supposed to keep the plane from stalling when climbing at too steep an angle. Some pilots have reported incidents of how they managed to save the plane from nose-diving by deactivating the MCAS in quick time.

Question: Why is this knowledge not shared with other pilots, and the incidents given urgent attention?

Question: Are all pilots adequately trained to handle such situations? There was suggestion that pilots familiar with the previous generations of the B737 jet would know what to do, nevertheless Boeing is now committed to updating the training in preparation for the Max returning into service.

The FAA as the regulator has come under fire for its practice that involves employees of a plane manufacturer in the process of inspecting, testing and certifying the aircraft. Senator Richard Blumenthal described the procedure as having “the fox guarding the henhouse”. In defence, FAA’s acting head Daniel Elwell said it is a global practice and that FAA “retains strict oversight authoriity”.

Question: Clearly “self-certification:” by the plane maker is not a wise decision. Never mind past practice, will this be tightened moving forward?

What Mr Elwell also said at the Senate hearing is disturbing when he added that it would cost the FAA an additional US$1.8 billion to recruit 10,000 more employees if it could not delegate the tasks to the plane maker. It always comes down to the dollars and cents and one wonders where the priorities lie.

And yes, Mr Elwell’s response to the criticism about FAA not responding quick enough to ground the Max jet can only bring amusement. He said: “We may have been the last country to ground the aircraft, but the United States and Canada were the first countries to ground the aircraft with data for cause and purpose.”

No matter, the world breathed a sigh of relief that FAA finally followed the lead of China and other countries much as it was reluctant admitting it.

B737 Max 8: Orders on the Line

After two fatal crashes involving the Boeing B737 Max 8 aircraft – one operated by Lion Air and the other by Ethiopian Airways – some Boeing customers have indicated they may cancel their orders of the plane.

Courtesy Getty Images

Garuda Indonesia which currently owns one of the jets became the first airline to seek cancellation of a multi-million dollar order for 49 aircraft.

Garuda spokesperson Ikhsan Rosan said: “The reason is that Garuda passengers in Indonesia have lost trust and no longer have the confidence.”

However, unlike Kenya Airways which said it may switch to Boeing’s rival Airbus, Garuda indicated it would consider other Boeing planes instead.

VietJet is another carrier which may cancel its US$25bn order.

On the other hand, WestJet announced it would stick with its orders. Spokesperson Lauren Steward said deliveries of up to 37 planes would take place after “the grounding has been lifted and the aircraft is approved for re-entry into service by all regulatory bodies.” The airline was supposed to add two more planes to its fleet this year.

Boeing expects work on a new software to be installed on the Max 8 to be ready by the end of the month. However, it is uncertain as to how long more the plane will remain grounded. This will be dependent on the investigations’ findings of the actual cause of the crashes, hence whether the fix that Boeing is currently working on is adequate.

To be expected, airlines that operate a large fleet of the Max 8 will want to see the aircraft put back into service. In the near term, they will have to grapple with their customers’ perception and confidence in the plane. (See Can Boeing regain travellers’ confidence in its B737 Max 8 Jet? March 17, 2019)

Air Canada for one is treading cautiously as it announced updating of its schedule until at least 1 July to give its customers “some certainty when booking and travelling”.

The B737 Max 8 saga: Who’s to blame?

Courtesy Reuters

New stories are apt to surface. Pilots in the United States have reported incidents when they had to avert near disasters. The latest story is one about how an off-duty pilot riding in the cockpit of a Boeing 737 Max 8 fixed a malfunction that kept pointing the aircraft’s nose downward.

That happened on the second-to-the-last flight for the same Lion Air jet which crashed the next day.

It was chilling and, needless to say, immensely sad that any report of the incident had not received the urgent attention that could have required some action that might in turn help prevent a tragedy.

A Lion Air spokesperson allegedly told Bloomberg: “All the date and information that we have on the flight and the aircraft have been submitted to the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee.”

Preliminary findings into the Ethiopian Airlines crash seemed to suggest some link between the tragic incidents of the two airlines.

Questions have been asked about a possible design fault and the lack of pilot training to handle the Max 8 especially for pilots who are already familiar with flying the older B737 aircraft. Now the US Department of Transportation (DOT) has said it will be looking into whether the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had been lapse in its certification of the aircraft, and whether Boeing had not been thorough in its submission for approval.

While it looks like the FAA and Boeing will have lots to answer for, Lion Air too may find itself in a tight situation about its maintenance program and the handling of its fault-reporting channel. How soon after an anomaly is reported is action taken? Or shed with other pilots in case they face similar problems?

There will be questions, more of them as the probe goes deeper.

And it may go a full circle back to the beginning as to why initially, following the Ethiopian Airlines tragedy, the FAA and Boeing were adamant about not grounding the aircraft. And the question asked again as to why investigations into the Lion Air disaster were taking so long, its final report it was said would not be out until next year. Could the findings have prevented the Ethiopian Airlines crash?