On Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 passengers and crew. Less than five months later, Ethiopian Air Flight 302 plummeted shortly after departure, killing 157 people, including eight Americans. The model at the center of both crashes was the 737 MAX, built by Chicago-based Boeing Co.
Now, after a six-month hiatus, Boeing’s production of the passenger jets has resumed. Can the flying public, already rattled by the enduring COVID-19 pandemic, feel safe aboard a 737 MAX?
Government test flights have wrapped up for Boeing’s 737 MAX. The Federal Aviation Administration still has to analyze data from those flights. If everything goes as planned, however, the aircraft-maker could get the FAA-ordered grounding of 737 MAX jets lifted as soon as September, and the airliners could take to the skies with passengers aboard by the end of the year, The Wall Street Journal reports.
Something else has to happen alongside that 737 MAX reboot, however, to restore the American flying public’s faith in Boeing: an ironclad, nonnegotiable commitment to transparency.
The U.S. Transportation Department’s inspector general’s office recently issued a report laying out how Boeing withheld pivotal information about the 737 MAX’s flight control software as the model was undergoing certification from the FAA. Problems with that software, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, were at the center of both fatal crashes. Investigators said the glitch put the airliners into a sharp dive that could not be stopped by the pilots.
“Early in the process, Boeing included limited information in initial briefings to FAA on the Max’s flight control software, MCAS, which subsequently has been cited as a contributing or potentially contributing factor in both accidents,” Inspector General Howard Elliott wrote in his report. “As a result, FAA was not well positioned to mitigate any risks related to MCAS.”
During one early certification meeting with FAA officials, Boeing representatives used 482 slides over a two-day span to explain critical 737 MAX flight controls, but devoted just two lines of text in those slides to the MCAS, according to the report. Later, when Boeing made major alterations to the system, it did not mention those changes to FAA engineers involved in the certification process, the report stated.
It wasn’t until after Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea that the FAA began a detailed review of the MCAS. That marked the first time the FAA was “presented with a full picture of how MCAS worked,” the report stated. Boeing began a system revamp, but 737 MAX aircraft continued flying. Less than five months later, Ethiopian Air Flight 302 crashed.
The 737 MAX fleet has been grounded ever since. Boeing’s bottom line — and its reputation — have taken a massive hit. Dennis Muilenburg lost his job as CEO. Boeing has made the technical changes to put the 737 MAX on track for an eventual return to service. That won’t be enough, though.
Boeing must convince the flying public that transparency will be applied to every stage of the development and making of its aircraft, every meeting and information exchange with the FAA — the regulatory body responsible for making aviation safe. The airplane-maker will have to take a hard look at a company culture that allowed opacity to seep into something as important as the certification process for a new passenger jet model.
A pandemic-weary American populace eagerly awaits the resumption of normalcy, and a return to days when flying for business or vacation are routine. For that to happen, however, aviation giants like Boeing must ensure they have — and safeguard — the full trust of the American flying public.