Breaking ranks with another major pilot group, the president of the Southwest Airlines pilots’ union said Friday that the airline’s 10,000 pilots support Congress granting Boeing the deadline extension it needs to put the final two MAX models into service without changes to a safety alert system.
Describing the 737 MAX as “one of the safest aircraft ever to fly,” union President Casey Murray said changing the flight deck of the newer versions, MAX 7 and MAX 10, could confuse pilots who regularly switch between other models.
Earlier this week, the pilots’ union at American Airlines voiced the opposite stance.
The Allied Pilots Association, or APA, representing 15,000 pilots at American, opposed Congress giving the extension, without which Boeing would be required to upgrade the cockpit systems on the still-uncertified 737 MAX 7 and MAX 10 models.
In an interview Friday, Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, or SWAPA, said Southwest has hundreds of MAX 7s on order and that it will be safer to keep the cockpit of that plane the same as that on the MAX 8s that its pilots fly today.
He said the fast pace of Southwest’s short-haul flying operations makes commonality between the cockpits in the various models essential.
“Our pilots fly many cycles in a day. Some of our pilots can touch three or four, even five aircraft in a day,” Murray said. “Switching from one to another and back and then back again is the issue. Having significant differences between the aircraft can cause confusion in moments of high stress.”
APA this week explicitly rejected this argument, citing the fact that American Airlines pilots routinely switch between the Boeing 757 and 767 models “without any confusion.”
Murray said that although those two Boeing jets do have differences in their cockpits, “they’re much longer-range aircraft and pilots aren’t switching back and forth literally on an hourly basis, like our pilots do.”
American Airlines is currently flying the MAX 8, but has no MAX 7s or MAX 10s on order. Though Southwest needs to get the smaller MAX 7s for its fleet, Murray said his union’s stance is “not self interest.”
“The commonality is our issue and we believe that it makes for a safer operation,” he said. “This is what is best for our pilots and for the traveling public.”
He said his union has been lobbying Congress to get Boeing its extension.
“We have been active on the Hill on this,” Murray said, adding that the union has been working with, among others, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the Senate Commerce Committee chaired by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.
The Armed Services Committees will consider an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act filed by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss, that would extend the certification deadline.
Cantwell has been pushing the Federal Aviation Administration to offer Congress some direction on the issue, and perhaps some political cover, by ruling on the safety question.
Murray suggested that’s hardly necessary, since the FAA has already approved the MAX to return to service after Boeing fixed the flight control system that caused the two deadly crashes.
“Whichever version we’re talking about, the MAX has been back flying for a while. The MAX 8 has been successfully deployed and flown tens of thousands of hours,” Murray said. “The MAX 7 is not different. It has just been delayed.”
Decisive design role
The divergence of opinion between these two major pilot groups makes the decision facing Congress more complex.
And Southwest’s position as an airline, as well as that of its pilot union, is complicated because of the carrier’s role as the launch customer for the MAX and the driver of Boeing’s decision to minimize changes to the jet’s cockpit systems.
From the earliest days of the MAX’s development, Southwest put pressure on Boeing to ensure the MAX cockpit would look exactly like that of the previous model so that to qualify to fly the new version its pilots would need nothing more than a few hours training on an iPad.
That’s why the crew alerting system on the MAX was not upgraded in the first place.
Indeed, Southwest exerted exactly the same pressure in earlier years when Boeing developed previous 737 models.
Peter Lemme, a former Boeing flight controls engineer, said if not for Southwest’s insistence otherwise, Boeing could have upgraded the 737 flight deck as far back as the 1980s.
When the then-new 757 was developed, and built in the same Renton factory, it was designed with a modern Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System, known as EICAS, that warns the pilots if something goes wrong in flight.
That system meets the standard in the latest safety regulations. In 1984, two years later, Boeing introduced the 737-300, but didn’t upgrade the crew alerting system to match the 757.
“The reason why was Southwest Airlines,” said Lemme. “It wasn’t really Boeing. It was the airlines saying no.”
And the current stance of the Southwest pilots union on the MAX is in stark contrast to that expressed after the two MAX crashes that killed 346 people and grounded the aircraft worldwide for nearly two years.
In 2019, SWAPA sued Boeing for misleading its pilots during the MAX’s original certification.
“Boeing’s misrepresentations caused SWAPA to believe that the 737 MAX aircraft was safe,” the suit states. “Those representations proved to be false.”
That lawsuit is still pending.
However, with Boeing having fixed the flight control system — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS — that caused the pilots to lose control in the two crashes, SWAPA’s Murray on Friday said he now has “100% confidence in the MAX line of aircraft.”
Murray said he fully supports the intent of the 2020 legislation — the Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act — to require all future aircraft to have an EICAS-style crew alerting system, which he called “an advancement of technology.”
But for the MAX, he said, it’s safer to keep it as is.
Even though Lemme regrets that Boeing didn’t upgrade the crew alerting system on the 737 cockpit years ago, he agrees with Murray that it’s too late now to change it just for the MAX 7 and 10 — and would be safer not to do so.
“Leave them alone,” he said. “It could have been better. But that ship sailed when they designed the MAX the way they did.”
Echoing Murray, Lemme said it would be less safe to have different systems in the various MAX models.
“It only takes one crew to get confused. It’s a recipe for disaster,” said Lemme. “What’s the basis for forcing a change? It’s just feeling good at this point.”
He said it was the flawed MCAS system that made the cascade of false alerts on the two crash flights catastrophic. With MCAS fixed, he added, the crew alerting shortfalls in the MAX are no longer so hazardous.
Leaving aside the engineering flaws on the original MAX version, Lemme said “the safety ratings on the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 are about the same. Both are extremely safe designs.”
With contradictory opinions coming from the nation’s pilot groups, these are the arguments Congress must now weigh.