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BOEING recently announced that it would give $100 million to help families affected by the two 737 Max crashes in 2018 and earlier this year. A few days later a low-cost Saudi operator cancelled an order worth $6 billion.
Boeing’s company value has sunk $28bn since the grounding of all Boeing 737 Max aircraft. This is a modern tale of capitalism in action: competition, greed and short-cuts leading to avoidable deaths and putting tens of thousands of workers’ jobs at risk.
The media coverage of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft has generally accepted the official company line that pilot error was to blame for the deaths of 346 people in two crashes because they failed to read the operating manual.
The other more technical narrative was about the “tendency” for the aircraft design to tilt upwards and so a corrective mechanism was installed to pitch the plane down to prevent a stall.
The reason the aircraft behaved this way is because Boeing rushed through the design and instead of the more costly total redesign they opted to go cheap by putting bigger, heavier engines on an old 737 frame. This imbalanced the aircraft, thus causing the tilting behaviour.
Pilots claim that the corrective system kicked in during normal take-off and thus confused the two pilots in the fatal incidents.
But a closer examination of the history of Boeing and the development of the 737 Max version reveals commercial pressures superseded safety considerations.
In other words profits come before people in the competitive world of aviation.
No other commercial aircraft has been implicated in as many fatalities so rapidly since 1966 compared to a list of 46 other aircraft flown in commercial fleets.
In 50 years of operation since 1969, Boeing aircraft have been involved in 83 fatal incidents with 6,679 deaths. That’s an average of 134 deaths every year.
A former Trans World Airlines pilot claims the airline covered up a design defect in a Boeing 727 aircraft in 1977, two years before he averted a near- crash by pulling the same plane out of a five-mile plunge.
TWA Flight 841 dropped to within 10,000 feet of the ground in 1979. The pilot claimed the subsequent investigation was a cover-up to take the public’s attention away from a serious problem with one of the most used aeroplanes in the world.
He claimed there was a major design defect in the Boeing 727 autopilot mechanism which sometimes made it impossible for the crew to disconnect it and regain human control of the aircraft. Boeing ended 727 production in 1984, after delivering 1,831 of the jetliners.
The story of the 737 Max began in 2010 when Boeing was faced with a major threat to its profits, spurring the airline to rush a series of fudges through the certification process — with an under-resourced Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) seemingly all too eager to help a US company threatened by a foreign competitor, rather than ask tough questions about the project.
As Boeing entered a race for profits against arch-rival Airbus it sped up production to obtain certification for its new 737 Max.
FAA managers pushed the agency’s safety engineers to delegate safety assessments to Boeing itself and to speedily approve the resulting analysis.
But the original safety analysis that Boeing delivered to the FAA for a new flight control system on the Max — a report used to certify the plane as safe to fly — had several crucial flaws.
Current and former engineers directly involved with the evaluations or familiar with the document shared details of Boeing’s system safety analysis of midair collision and avoidance system (MCAS) have stated that the certification understated the power of the new flight control system, which was designed to swivel the horizontal tail to push the nose of the plane down to avert a stall.
When the planes later entered service, MCAS was capable of moving the tail more than four times further than was stated in the initial safety analysis document.
It also failed to account for how the system could reset itself each time a pilot responded, thereby missing the potential impact of the system repeatedly pushing the aeroplane’s nose downward.
More alarmingly the engineers assessed a failure of the system as one level below “catastrophic.”
But even that “hazardous” danger level should have precluded activation of the system based on input from a single sensor — and yet that’s how it was designed. Just two very similar narrow-body planes dominate domestic (or intra-European) travel.
One is the European company Airbus’s 320 family. But because there are only two players in this market, and because their offerings are so fundamentally similar, the competition for this slice of the plane market is both intense and limited. If one company were to gain a clear technical advantage over the other, it would be a minor catastrophe for the losing company.
And that’s what Boeing thought it was facing. A major employer faced a major financial threat, and short-term politics and greed won out over the integrity of the regulatory system.
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