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The Boeing Crisis: An In-Depth Analysis

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Photo from Farnborough Airshow

A Case of Immense Lobbying and Corner Cutting

Crashing Down

Airplane manufacturing giant, Boeing has recently got into some seriously hot water for its latest plane: the 737 MAX 8. Early in the morning of October 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 tragically crashed off of the coast of Jakarta a paltry 12 minutes into the flight, killing all 189 passengers and crew members. Boeing’s official statement regarding the tragic crash dismissed the whole debacle as a faulty replacement of the Angle of Attack (AOA) sensor 2 days prior to the crash, which they claimed caused the plane to essentially tank after sending false signals to their Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) which controls the tilt of the plane’s nose. However a mere 5 months after the Lion Air incident, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 went down killing all 157 people aboard in an eerily similar fashion to that of Lion Air Flight 610 crash. In both instances, the pilots reported the lack of available information on how to handle this new MCAS system as they hurtled to the ground with increasing acceleration, leaving them just seconds to react as they frantically searched for a solution that was simply not there. The preliminary crash report for both instances showed that in both crashes the pilots did everything Boeing said to try and override their automatic system which was believed to have caused the accidents; in the Lion Air crash, the Pilots noted the problem of “Auto nose down” just 2 minutes into the flight before trying over 2 dozen times to override the system to no avail. This wasn’t the first time either for this specific plane either as Popular Mechanics reports, just 3 days before the crash reports of autopilot related glitches surfaced which prompted the AOA sensor (which Boeing said caused the crash) to be replaced; a day after the replacement of the AOA sensor (1 day prior to the crash) the plane experienced more even more reported glitching.

Crash Analysis

Graphs from the New York Times; Data from FlightRadar24

While these reports were just preliminary and will require further investigation after the  recent recovery of the Black boxes and cockpit audio recordings, Boeing’s faulty MCAS system with even worse troubleshooting was deemed the cause for the crashes due to the near identical crash conditions, operations and behavioral problems of the planes. As we can see from the graphs above, there were repeated periods of oscillation (up-and-down movement of the wings, usually caused by turbulence) lasting in segments of about 20 seconds each. Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, John Hansman Jr stated: “Planes like the Boeing 737 oscillate naturally because of turbulence and other effects. But those swings have different time spans: either between five and eight seconds, or a minute or longer. The variations in the intermediate range of 15 or so seconds have no other obvious explanation.” He furthered this by saying: “Even from the available data, there are similarities between the Lion Air case and this case in terms of this 15 second periodicity. That would point toward a similar phenomenon.”

However troubling the crashes themselves are, the process in which we got to this point is even more so. This is the convoluted and deeply disturbing story of the Boeing 737 MAX 8.

Growing Competition

Like any other important American story, this one again starts from foreign influence, namely from the likes of the Airbus A320neo. Airbus launched this new upgraded version of the famous A320 aircraft as a very nice upgrade to the specs without completely redesigning the entire aircraft and its dynamics as all they had to do was replace the engine. Think of it as going from an iPhone X to a XS: the design is the same, but the specs are just much better in the “S” or in the case of the A320, the New Engine Option (neo) variant. This new upgraded became an instant hit amongst airlines (especially those who previously operated A320’s) as it would require little to no new flight training since the design/dynamics were so similar to the older plane. This of course was great for Airbus, but Boeing wasn’t too happy about this.

Building the 737 MAX 8

Images from Vox Media

A large difference between the A320 and the 737 has always been their distinct “ride heights.” As shown in the picture from VOX, its clearly visible that the A320 has a much higher ride height so it is much easier to fit the bigger engine underneath without changing any dynamics with really no re-engineering necessary, however this was vastly different in the case of the 737. In its stock configuration, the CFM International Leap 1-B engines (the same one’s being used on the A320neo by the way), would not fit underneath the wings; to combat this issue, Boeing decided to mount the engines higher which made the tops of the engines protrude higher than the tops of the wings which would drastically change the dynamics of the actual aircraft. The biggest difference would affect how one would fly the aircraft as it made the nose of the airplane have an ‘unnatural’ tendency to tip upwards which it would increase the potential for stalling upon takeoff, etc. This posed a huge marketing problem for Boeing as this would require pilots to have new training when transferring from the regular 737 to the 737 MAX series, a stark contrast to the Airbus A320neo which required no new training whatsoever between the A320 family. To “solve” the main marketing issue, Boeing developed what we know as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) which would automatically change the direction of the plane’s nose in the event that it would slip upwards to prevent stalling, which Boeing deemed would require no new flight training between the previous 737 family and the MAX model. On paper this sounds good like a good business and marketing decision, however the execution was questionable at best.

Boeing's weird relationship with the FAA

Boeing was in an obvious rush to put this plane onto the market, as in the Duopoly (industry controlled by only 2 monopolies/competitors) that is aircraft manufacturing, each manufacturer is threatened without a swift and safe response to the other. Boeing quickly got to work and put together what we know as the 737 MAX 8 and rushed it through the United States Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) air-worthiness certification by quite literally taking matters into its own hands. According to Quartz News New York, the FAA delegates much of its testing to other companies such as Boeing claiming that it does not have the funding to do all of the testing by itself. Subsequently, according to The Seattle Times in 2019, the FAA engineers delegated most of the safety ‘certification’ back to Boeing itself to do in order to “speed up the process.” Even more disturbing, in some cases the FAA engineers didn’t even read through the technical documents that Boeing sent them, one of these cases being the fatal MCAS system which fell under the Boeing Company to approve.

Photo from Farnborough Airshow

The Unfortunate Truth

Probably the most troubling part of the entire scenario is Boeing’s lack of transparency when it comes to the plane’s dynamics and the MCAS system itself. If you recall from the section titled “Building the Boeing 737 MAX 8,” one of the biggest features of the Airbus A320neo was the continuity factor between the older and newer aircrafts. This is because all Airbus had to do was add new engines, which would require little to no new training for pilots who have previously operated an A320 aircraft prior to operate successfully. Most airlines who operate older A320 models upgraded since it was of its huge logistical benefits and its ease of transition was a huge factor. This proved to be very profitable as according to Airbus, they have sold over 6,500 A320neo family aircrafts since its debut. Needless to say, Boeing was eager to capture this relatively new “upgrade” market with one of the most successful models in history: the 737.

Unlike Airbus, Boeing did have to do some special engineering to make this new set of engines work with the 737 and developed the MCAS to make it handle similar to the “regular” 737, however Boeing did not make this clear to those airlines ordering the model. In fact, according to the Seattle Times, no one even knew that the new MCAS system existed and wasn’t even included in the manuals for the Aircraft.  One Pilot even said the flight manual is “inadequate and almost criminally insufficient.” The most concerning aspect of all of this was that according to Bloomberg, Boeing and the FAA both decided in 2017 that the new plane required no new flight simulator training, even with the new MCAS system. To make matters worse, according to the New York Times the pilots had less than 40 seconds to respond before their inevitable disintegration.

So picture this, you are the pilot of a plane hurtling in a nosedive towards the ground as you frantically try to disable a system not in the manual and you didn’t even know existed until a few moments prior, and on top of this you only have 40 seconds to figure it all out before it’s too late.

Photo by Ross D. Franklin

The Coverup

Even upon launch the 737 MAX had numerous issues in relation to the autopilot/MCAS/auto nose down ‘feature’ as reported by pilots in the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), a federal database, per CNN. In fact, according to an report by The Atlantic there are at least 6 other reports dating as far back as June of 2018 4 months before the deadly Lion Air flight 610 crash and 5 more reports of the autopilot forcing the nose of the plane down between the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air incidents. Mind you, the ASRS is the federal database ran by NASA and is a completely voluntary system in which pilots report their issues (hence the “at least” 6 incidents); a database which the FAA has to regularly check and one which Boeing is well aware of, yet these reports went seemingly unnoticed and the planes were still deemed safe to the public.

Even upon launch the 737 MAX had numerous issues in relation to the autopilot/MCAS/auto nose down ‘feature’ as reported by pilots in the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS), a federal database, per CNN. In fact, according to an report by The Atlantic there are at least 6 other reports dating as far back as June of 2018 4 months before the deadly Lion Air flight 610 crash and 5 more reports of the autopilot forcing the nose of the plane down between the Lion Air and Ethiopian Air incidents. Mind you, the ASRS is the federal database ran by NASA and is a completely voluntary system in which pilots report their issues (hence the “at least” 6 incidents); a database which the FAA has to regularly check and one which Boeing is well aware of, yet these reports went seemingly unnoticed and the planes were still deemed safe to the public.

“We Were Kept in the Dark”

Said John Weaks, the President of Southwest Airlines’ Pilots Association. He furthers this statement in an interview stating: “We do not like the fact that a new system was put on the aircraft and wasn’t disclosed to anyone or put in the manuals…” He then disclosed that Boeing and the FAA deemed “that the system (MCAS) may not be performing as it should.” This exposed the extent that Boeing and the FAA were willing to go to gain a little more market share. Weaks concluded: “Is there anything else on the MAX Boeing has not told the operators? If there is, we need to be informed.” The fact that Boeing and the FAA did nothing to even address these issues until another 157 people were killed in a crash is abhorrent, absurd and highly careless, especially with them having numerous reported incidents built up already. It downright goes against the basic responsibility of the FAA and Boeing all together: keeping the public, their customers, safe.

The Aftermath

The combination of an under-the-table safety ‘certification’ with the straight up deception of the airlines in terms of dynamics and on board systems allowed Boeing to truly take over the market. In fact according to Reuters, the 737 MAX line became Boeing’s best selling model. However after the 2 disastrous crashes, most of the world’s 737 MAX fleet has been completely grounded per a PBS report. The FAA reports that Boeing is pushing a software update soon to the MCAS system that will make it ‘less intrusive and controlling’ with the aim ‘to prevent these types of accidents from ever happening again.’ Nonetheless, there is no real time frame in which the airlines themselves will adopt and reinstate these planes into their lineups per BBC as it would pose as a huge hit to these airlines’ public perception. Subsequently, most future orders for the 737 MAX planes have been cancelled as reported by Reuters. So its easy to say Boeing’s initial success was undermined by their own abrasive business practices.

The Convoluted Effects of Lobbying

Boeing is one of the largest corporation in America and has been a top 10 lobbying firm since 1998 according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In fact,

Photo by Vishnu Karthik

Boeing spent over $15 Million on lobbying alone in 2018 per the Federal Election Commission. CNN reports that Boeing serves as the chair Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and spent over $4 million endorsing candidates and other committees in the 2018 midterms. A Politico report, shows us that Boeing was able to use its substantial presence in Congress to pressure the FAA into delegating the safety certification back onto itself. This exposes an enormous hole in the governing system of the United States: through lobbying, corporations reign control. If Boeing as a company has gained enough political traction through lobbying to the point where they can control legislation through their political candidates, is the head of the committee that oversees its industry and essentially took over the FAA making them the kings of whatever they do, an unstoppable force and a monopoly, then what’s stopping the next company to become an even bigger presence? To make this easier to picture, view Boeing as the puppet-master with the legislation that follows and it’s enforcement as the puppet itself; a representation of the system of lobbying within the United States.

The thing is, Boeing isn’t the only company that has a pronounced say in our Congressional legislature, take a look at the National Rifle Association (NRA) or Exxon-Mobil both companies who have blocked progressive laws that protect the public through the use of background checks before gun purchases and the development of more renewable resources to name a couple. Why is it that we allow ourselves to be continually controlled by big businesses? Why is it that the companies which are only for profit control the livelihood of the millions of American citizens like you and I? As Americans we should be able to hold these firms accountable, not the other way around. Submitting to lobbying, especially to this extent, is the first step in a long ladder down to corruption. After all, Boeing’s piss poor business practices coupled with its convoluted lobbying practices to skew the competition involving and to gain control over US government agencies and policies is beyond cheap and because of it over 340 innocent lives were lost.

Originally Published: April 30, 2019

Re-uploaded: September 2, 2019

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