March 10, 2019 was when it all started to go wrong for Boeing. Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 took off from Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, on what should have been a normal flight to Nairobi, Kenya. Yet, six minutes after take-off, the flight crashed thirty-nine miles from the airport. The pilots were reporting control problems with the plane, a brand-new Boeing 737 MAX 8. All of the 157 passengers and crew on board lost their lives.
Fatalities on a brand-new airliner like the Boeing 737 MAX are certainly concerning. With the amount of testing that brand-new airplanes must go through in order to be certified by bodies like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), any crashes that could be the fault of the design of the plane itself are worrying, especially if they have not been picked up during testing.
So, it is even more concerning that less than five months before the Ethiopian Airlines crash there was a crash of the Boeing 737 MAX 8: Lion Air Flight 610, which crashed into the Java Sea shortly after take-off from Jakarta. This accident shares striking similarities to the Ethiopian Airlines crash, and also led to the deaths of the 189 passengers and crew on board.
The key question that we must consider when discussing these fatal accidents is ‘why?’ Why did a brand-new type of airliner, which was certified to be safe, crash in similar circumstances twice? The official investigative reports for these crashes have not been released yet, so any causes, for now, are speculative. Yet, we can discuss the failings that perhaps led to these unfortunate tragedies.
The Boeing 737 MAX is a modern airliner, debuting in 2017, with 376 units sold so far. Yet, the basis for this airliner is from the 1960s, with the original 737 variant, the 737-100, which debuted in 1967. Throughout the years, Boeing has elected to keep making updates to the 737 line, most notably the Boeing 737 Next Generation line, which launched in 1997, with almost seven thousand built. What drives Boeing to make these changes is competition with its European arch-rival Airbus, whose A320 family launched in 1987 and has since proved to be a serious competitor to Boeing. This caused Boeing to launch the 737 Next Generation and MAX programs. One could say the Boeing 737 MAX program, however, was rushed: Airbus had launched the Airbus A320neo, an updated version of the A320, in 2010, and the 737 MAX could be seen as a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to this launch.
The fact that the 737’s basic design is so old, however, could have proven fatal. The original 737 from 1967 had two small cigar-shaped engines that could easily fit under the wing. Yet, over the fifty years the 737 has been on sale, the size of the engines has grown considerably to accommodate the fact that the 737 itself has gotten bigger. With the 737 MAX, Boeing has had to change the way the plane handles, due to the fact that its larger engines are placed higher compared to the wing than older variants. This system, called MCAS, is oft-quoted as the cause of the two crashes, due to the fact that it relies on angle-of-attack sensors, which were faulty on both of the crashed planes, causing them to nosedive. Installing MCAS meant that, to the pilot, the plane controls the same as the standard 737, meaning that the 737 MAX also has the same type of rating as older 737s. This allows pilots qualified on older 737s to fly the 737 MAX, as long as they complete a short 3-5 day training course. Yet, with the MCAS causing two crashes, would it have been wiser for Boeing to remove the system, even if it meant airlines would have to spend more to retrain their pilots?
Another question that one must ask is whether Boeing could have just built an entirely new airliner that would not have had the limitations of the old design. While this would have given Boeing a real competitive advantage for the future, the two main factors why Boeing did not choose this path were time and money. Boeing’s last airliner project, the 787 Dreamliner, was launched all the way back in 2003, yet entered service in 2011, and cost Boeing thirty-two million dollars to launch the plane. Boeing probably calculated that with the looming threat of the A320neo, they could not afford to wait eight to ten years to develop a brand new design, and had to come up with the compromised 737 MAX design instead.
The real failure here is regulation. Boeing has a relationship with the FAA which could be described as cushy: having a lot of sway on how the FAA certifies aircraft. In the past, Boeing has been allowed to self-certify planes. The top safety official at the FAA, Ali Bahrami, has lobbied for airplane manufacturers to be able to self-certify parts for their own planes, instead of having the FAA certify them. While one could argue that this saves government funds and resources, it leads to a conflict of interest, whereby manufacturers like Boeing try to certify as much of their own parts as possible, with little oversight. It is clear in the aftermath of these two crashes that the FAA needs to take back control of the certification process, in order to prevent these conflicts of interest.
It is telling, for example, that the United States was the last nation to ground the 737 MAX, after virtually every other developed nation took this action. The reason that this is the case is most likely Boeing’s importance to the U.S. aviation industry: it is the second-largest defense contractor in the U.S. (and the world, after Lockheed Martin), and Boeing is one of the two major airplane manufacturers worldwide along with Airbus. With Boeing being so important to the American aviation industry, the FAA could have given Boeing a free pass, perhaps loosening regulations so that Boeing could produce a competitor to Airbus’ new aircraft.
The U.S. government and Boeing, therefore, find themselves in a tricky situation. The key way in which a fiasco like this could be prevented in the future, however, is to end the conflict of interest between Boeing and the FAA, having the FAA itself certify all components. While this would require investment in the technical know-how and manpower necessary for certification, it would ensure that there is true independence between the planemaker and the certifying body. If one is wary of a situation where pharmaceutical companies self-certify their own drugs, for example, then the same principle should apply to planemakers like Boeing certifying safety-critical systems.
The issues with the 737 MAX will almost certainly be fixed, and the plane will safely fly over our skies for years to come. Yet, with the 737 MAX being somewhat rushed to market, given the weak regulation and problems of an aging design, Boeing could have made some mistakes in their quest to become the dominant plane-maker, which have impacted the safety of aviation. We must also consider how failings in regulation allowed Boeing to release the compromised design that led to these avoidable fatalities.