Every day thousands of flights take off from airports worldwide. We are routinely told flying is less hazardous than driving and so we put our lives in the hands of airlines who supposedly have our best interests at heart.
That premise now needs to be deeply scrutinized.
If we can’t trust our major airline carriers, who can we trust?
Boeing, the world’s preeminent airplane maker has been found seriously wanting, with two fatal crashes in less than five months, which left no survivors, on a new airplane type, the Boeing 737 Max 8, something that is unprecedented in modern aviation history.
As a result, subsequent investigations have exposed what is clearly a cancer of ‘moral malaise’; of greed, fraud, self-interest, and more.
The crashes and subsequent investigations have led to countries grounding their 737 Max aircraft and investigations are uncovering some chilling facts in how Boeing operated. We also must ask why the United States was the last major country to allow the Max to keep flying, even after the first fatal crash.
While the United States has been a world leader in aviation these two fatal air crashes call this into question and has finally prompted lawmakers and government to investigate what may have been a root cause of the crashes, the new automated anti-stall system in the aircraft.
The furor involving the Boeing’s 737 Max which resulted in the Lion and Ethiopian Airlines crashes earlier this year has done more than focus attention on the anti-stalling system used in the new Boeing 737 Max aircraft. It’s also focused attention on the lack of inspections, the conflicts of interest whereby Boeing employees, not the FAA, conducted safety inspections and sign-offs just to get the planes out the door, the extreme faulty and sloppy quality that company employees have reported and the ignoring or retaliating against employees that attempted to bring this to Boeing’s leadership. There is also serious question about the ethicality of the FAA, government and Boeing.
It appears that Boeing repeatedly threw large sums of money and lobbyists at Congress, resulting in Congress directing the FAA to make the reviews of airplanes and their certifications for airworthiness “quicker and less costly.” This resulted in the Organization Designation Authorization program being weakened such that the FAA started authorizing Boeing employees to perform much more of the airworthiness certification process – a process previously performed primarily by FAA employees.
In an industry where safety is paramount, the collective concerns involving two crucial Boeing planes — the company’s workhorse, the 737 Max, and the 787 Dreamliner — point to potentially systemic problems. Boeing is now facing questions about whether the race to get the Max done, and catch up to its rival Airbus, led it to miss safety risks in the design.
In order to overcome some aerodynamic stall concerns in developing the 737 Max, Boeing developed a fix, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) .
Both the Lion Air jet which crashed in October killing 189 people and the Ethiopian Airlines aircraft, which went down this March and killed 157 people, were fitted with the system. Both planes experienced similarly erratic steep climbs and descents and fluctuating airspeeds before crashing shortly after takeoff, with both planes experiencing similarly erratic steep climbs and descents and fluctuating airspeeds.
And, as astounding as it seems, it now appears that Boeing did not tell carriers that a safety feature that warns pilots about malfunctioning sensors used by MACS had been deactivated in the new 737 Max. Earlier Boeing models had this safety feature. Even FAA inspectors and supervisors were unaware that the Max did not have this safety alert feature.
And, what is equally appalling is that the FAA apparently had received at least 216 reports of these sensors failing or having to be repaired or replaced by airlines since 2004 (only one-fifth of the sensors involved Boeing and none were on the 737 Max). So it was known that these sensors monitored by the deactivated safety alert feature do fail.
Some carriers who were operating the Max did not learn of this deactivation until after the Lion and Ethiopian airline crashes! A Southwest spokeswoman said that before the crashes, Southwest had assumed that sensor alerts “were operable on all Max aircraft.”
According to Southwest pilots union president, Jon Weaks, “Southwest’s own manuals were wrong” as Boeing had not communicated the modification eliminating the safety feature so the carriers’ manuals reflect incorrect information.
And reports now show that Boeing was offering the discontinued sensor safety feature in an optional package of additional Max safety features which could be installed for an additional payment. American Airlines Group, Inc. was one of the few U.S. carriers that paid the additional charge for the package of Max safety features that included the sensor warnings.
Questions about the process – and whether the Federal Aviation Administration granted Boeing too much oversight – have arisen on a number of issues.
By granting Boeing too much oversight the FAA and its independence in certifying the airworthiness of aircraft are in question. Captain Sully Sullenberger, the airline captain who successfully landed his plane in the Hudson River, saving 155 people, has openly criticized the FAA and Boeing, noting that the FAA does not have sufficient independence to do its job. Captain Sully has also noted that much of the work involving aircraft certification has been outsourced by the FAA to Boeing employees.
“There are a whole host of questions about the certification of the plane,” said House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Peter DeFazio (D., Ore.). “The more I learn, the more concerned I become.” And Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D. Conn) wrote in a letter sent to acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell that the program “left the fox guarding the henhouse.”
Another telling and chilling fact is that since 2017 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has received nearly a dozen whistleblower complaints, expressing concerns about the manufacturing of the Dreamliner, a former model, at the Boeing plant in South Carolina. The complaints, first reported by The New York Times, range from allegations of finding tools and debris inside new planes to employees facing pressure to put speed over safety.
John Barnett, a former Boeing quality manager, said, “As a quality manager at Boeing, you’re the last line of defense before a defect makes it out to the flying public… and I haven’t seen a plane out of Charleston yet that I’d put my name on saying it’s safe and airworthy.”
Mr. Barnett said bosses had refused his repeated efforts to deal with production issues, and he has filed a whistle-blower complaint.
“They’re trying to shorten the time of manufacturing,” said Mr. Rich Mester, a former Boeing mechanic. “But are you willing to sacrifice the safety of our product to maximize profit?”
The list of claims goes on.
Regulators and lawmakers are finally taking a deeper look at Boeing’s priorities, and whether profits trumped safety.
When it comes to airline transportation being on time does not matter, loving customers does not matter. The Boeing situation is unparalleled in history and has placed serious doubts on safety and on the ethics of government agencies, government itself and the airlines we trusted to get us to our destinations safely.