A new report by Vox sheds new light on the competitive pressures that helped lead to twin air disasters and the grounding of nearly every Boeing 737 MAX aircraft on the planet. The team of investigative reporters asserts that the tragedies were rooted in the airline industry’s clamor for the next generation of larger, more fuel-efficient power plants for future passenger jets.
Much of the focus surrounding safety concerns with the now-grounded Boeing 737 MAX has revolved around the aircraft’s computer-automated Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), but a new report from Vox finds that the MAX’s new, larger engines may be the root cause of the plane’s spotty safety record. The team of investigative reporters concluded that it was the major redesign required to accommodate the larger power plant that caused the MAX to become uncomfortably reliant on the MCAS in the first place.
Because the engines on the MAX planes were relocated to allow for the much larger jet engine profiles, the planes are said to have developed an unfortunate side effect of now being at increased risk of stalling during a rapid ascent. The MCAS was designed, in part, to recognize these conditions and automatically force the plane’s nose down preventing a potentially catastrophic stall.
Investigations into the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 are centered on the possibility that faulty sensors may have triggered the MCAS to incorrectly identify a stall and automatically force the nose down in response. In both cases, it appears that flight crews were unable to regain control of their aircraft before tragedy struck.
The explosive new report asserts that Boeing intentionally undersold the MAX family of aircraft’s reliance of the MCAS system in order to give the appearance that flight crews familiar with older generations of 737 planes would need little or no additional training to begin flying the MAX. According to the investigative team, pilots were, in some cases, not even aware that the new MCAS feature existed on the planes they were flying.
“This isn’t just a computer bug. It’s a scandal,” the Vox piece concludes. “At first, the story Boeing tried to tell was that it was a software problem; the automated stall-prevention system was malfunctioning, the company said. And the accident reports seem to support this statement. But there’s a much deeper and scandal-ridden story about how this plane got to market, and it starts with Boeing’s fierce rivalry with Airbus — and their race to put a new engine in their planes.”
This isn’t the first indication that Boeing’s rush to beat Airbus to market may have contributed to the 737 MAX program’s current woes. A number of current and former Boeing workers have publicly supported this assessment. Boeing officials have dismissed these allegations outright, noting that the aviation giant has a long history of placing safety above all else.
“Our entire team is devoted to the quality and safety of the aircraft we design, produce and support,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg wrote in a March 18th statement. “I’ve dedicated my entire career to Boeing, working shoulder to shoulder with our amazing people and customers for more than three decades, and I personally share their deep sense of commitment. Recently, I spent time with our team members at our 737 production facility in Renton, Wash., and once again saw firsthand the pride our people feel in their work and the pain we’re all experiencing in light of these tragedies. The importance of our work demands the utmost integrity and excellence—that’s what I see in our team, and we’ll never rest in pursuit of it.”
This new report, however, hints that Boeing may have intentionally undersold major design changes and a complete reworking of the flight control systems in an effort to better market the next generation of passenger planes.
Or as the Vox investigation puts it, “This problem started with a company’s race to compete with its rival that pushed them to pretend like their plane behaved just like its old one – even when it didn’t.”
[Image Source: Wikimedia]