Why Boeing MAX Coverage Goes On And On (And Why It Should)

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Weeks of critical coverage of Boeing’s 737 MAX program has dented Boeing’s stock price—although not much—and left the flying public with diminished confidence in the MAX, if not Boeing itself. For Boeing and the news-consuming public, the story has been an intermittent drip-drip of new revelations, none of them particularly dispositive for the airplane maker.

Barclay’s Investment Bank just released a survey of 1765 passengers and 44 percent said they would wait a year before flying on a MAX. That’s neither a ringing endorsement nor a stinging condemnation, but it does show people are paying attention. It will blow over because people have perishable memories of such things and Boeing is doing its best to paper over the damage.

You can read some of the reactions to ours and other press coverage here and here. Comments addressed to me personally have been mixed with a noticeable subtext that Boeing really failed its customers and the flying public. A surprising number of these came from former Boeing engineers and employees. Some also think the press is beating up unfairly on Boeing and that the company should be a source of national pride.

But it’s not the job of the press to be a cheerleader for Boeing nor any other company, nor for the FAA, the NTSB nor any foreign investigatory agency. The MAX story has been persistent because it’s probably the most important commercial aviation development for the last decade, at least. If we were only about national pride, we wouldn’t print stories that explained how Boeing knew about issues with MCAS, but didn’t tell airlines or how it declined to make the existence of the system known to pilots training on the new airplane. Or even gave test pilots much detail on it.

But we are obliged to print such stories. And here a nod to the news outlets who have done yeoman’s work in revealing the outlines of the MAX story, specifically, The Seattle Times, The Wall Street Journal, Aviation Week and The New York Times. We’ve quoted their reporting frequently on AVweb and I expect we’ll continue to. I know it’s fashionable to bash the press under the rubric of “fake news.” So go ahead and bash if you must, but the reality is that without this aggressive reporting, this story could have been buried along with the victims of two MAX crashes.

And the story, in my view, is that a potentially flawed airplane got through certification procedures that are specifically designed to prevent just that, with multi-layered checks and balances. Airline safety has improved so radically since the mid-1990s that transport-category certification has proven all but bulletproof.

Yes, I’m pulling a punch by saying “potentially” flawed because the accident investigations aren’t complete. Even when they are, there’s the danger that given that these are both foreign crashes, the conclusions could be politicized by agencies with a nationalistic agenda our own NTSB has shown itself capable of avoiding. If you doubt that, watch this NBC interview of Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde Gebremariam who vigorously denies that the pilots in command of the second crash could have improved their odds by simply slowing down. Denial has no place in aviation safety, whether from an airline, pilots or Boeing or in the interests of waving the flag of any country.

At Aviation Week, Fred George observed that some in the industry think Boeing may need a refresh at the top, with a new board and new CEO. Or at the very least an independent outside review of the company of the sort done following recent business scandals, some related to sexual harassment and discrimination. A move to split CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s combined CEO/Chairman duties was recently voted down by stockholders and the board professed confident support for Muilenburg. Why wouldn’t they? Since he assumed the reins at Boeing in 2015, the stock price has almost quadrupled and although it’s off its record high, it’s up 15% on the year. If you owned 100 shares, you’re $4000 richer just this year.

Since modern American business is all about the stock price and shareholder value, you can see how there’s a fiduciary inertia to keep things exactly as they are, even if they’re a little or a lot broken. Boeing’s 737 order book hasn’t taken a significant hit yet and might not. By the end of the year, I’ll wager that the stock price will be back on the rise.

All of that argues for keeping things exactly as they are, right? Sure, if you’re on the current board or you’re a stockholder. It might not bode quite so well for preventing another MAX from slipping through the certification cracks if Boeing, in fact, has institutional and management shortcomings that blind it to potential safety shortfalls.

That is the fundamental import of the MAX story. We shouldn’t accept that “Boeing made a mistake and now they’ve fixed it.” A thorough probe worthy of the name should reveal why and how the mistakes were made and what role the FAA did or did not play. Did the agency reasonably perform as expected? The FAA is a government agency and citizens have a compelling right to know if it’s effectively serving their needs. The point of these investigation is to reveal both flaws in the machines and the people who operate it, but also to correct underlying cultural, management and oversight shortcomings so the same thing doesn’t happen again.

I’m not saying such shortcomings exist, but how could we possibly know if an investigation doesn’t turn over all the stones? The rosy glow of fat dividend checks shouldn’t derail that.

Note to Readers:Our commenting section will be back to normal by next week. Promise. We apologize for the inconvenience, but the site will be better for it. In the meantime, if you have a comment,emailus and we’ll append it to the blog.

Mr. Bertorelli’s recent article on Boeing and the 737 Max was masterful in its clarity regarding the role of the press in this evolving story. If something went wrong at Boeing, nobody other than the press is going to bring it to light. In the long run, both Boeing and the flying public will be better off for it.

Fred Gerr

The aviation audience, commenting, postulating, and criticizing is a small group in comparison to the US and global audience.

The US public has tired of this story and has already moved on. “Barclay’s Investment Bank just released a survey of 1765 passengers and 44 percent said they would wait a year before flying on a MAX” proves the public has and is moving on from this issue. Airline boarding’s have not changed. And how could they? What is the alternative? AmTrak?

Right now Boeing is engaged in mining reaction data. Boeing has been sending the CEO to various aviation functions. The CEO says something in what appears inane and sticks a finger in the air to determine the pushback. The press, aviation savvy or otherwise, publishes these comments to see who and how much reaction is generated. People, from experienced MAX pilots to the average John Q. Public offer their respective opinions. And we all know opinions are like #$%holes, everyone has one. Combine these opinions with Boeing’s drip by drip release of an ever changing MAX training protocol regarding MCAS activation and emergency procedures , you have a perfect recipe for confusion. Out of this confusion Boeing lawyers will weave their defense argument to handle the coming litigation.

There are many issues with MCAS. Ultimately, if a flight stability augmentation program, stall prevention system, or whatever Boeing or other aircraft builders decide to design and engineer into their airplanes for “safety” and similar flight feel to older, existing airplanes, if that system at MAX (no pun intended) capacity/throw exceeds any capacity for manual pilot input for returning to level flight, that is downright dangerous.

For both the Lion Air and Ethiopia Airlines crew, the MCAS had an opportunity to go full down trim in a very short time, at one of the most critical and busy times of any airline flight. Plus, these two crashes show what the outcome can be with a mix of very experienced crews with exception of one low-time co-pilot. 75% of the pilots were highly experienced. In both cases, whatever they similarities or differences in circumstances… the stab went to full nose down position. Once that happens, no amount of heroic and/or desperate manual inputs will prevent a virtually vertical dive into oblivion.

Why would Boeing engineer that into their design? That is the question the lawyers will sort out, behind closed doors, which will take years to process. By then, there will be many other stories of drama, mayhem, and destruction occupying “inquiring minds”.

With continued press coverage of the two MAX crashes, their causes, and all the subsequent investigations, a potential for US aviation certification requirements to change enough to strangle the progress made allowing new technology to be used in airplanes as a distinct possibility. Should this happen, the first victim of this knee-jerk reaction led by politically correct, aviation ignorant politicians, will be GA…which does not have the resources to fight this very real, distinct possibility. Boeing’s design, engineering, and certification processes using these more recent certification practices specifically demonstrated by this MCAS fiasco could lead as back to the former archaic, expensive, and time consuming certification processes. AML STC’s could go away as a result of this MCAS mess.

With a backlog of 5,000 orders, losing a few to early public reaction fallout has been factored in. MCAS gets re-engineered, MAX8/9’s return to flying status, stock prices stabilize and may even climb. The FAA gets some scrutiny for a while. Designated delegated engineering takes the brunt of the criticism and will be the primary recipients of the blame game. The dust settles…GA takes the biggest hit. And the beat goes on.

Jim Holdeman

Boeing should take a page from NASA. They only killed 20 people and got raked over the coals for months each time.

Where are the Frank Bormans and Neil Armstrongs when we need them.
This is a (excuse the blasphemy) come to Jesus moment for Boeing.
Hopefully share prices, something NASA didn’t have to worry about, doesn’t (trump) the results. NASA only had its very existence to worry about!
Ray Toews

Agree with your recent article but think you did pull some punches.The news article on the “rollercoaster” technique was a revelation in what it says about the available trim options in this scenario..

Let’s see, the POH says to disable MCAS which disables powered trim.That means someone at Boeing meant for you to use the manual trim.How much imagination does it take, on the part of an engineer, to suspect that aerodynamic forces would be high at the time the manual trim was used?

One must infer either that Boeing is tenuring a much lower caliber of engineers than it used to, OR, that they were ignored. Neither of these is a good thing and neither of these will necessarily be fixed by virtue of the MAX getting fixed.

I have to say my confidence in Boeing is shaken for years to come.

Colyn Case

I have been following this story off and on for the many months. Back in the early 1980’s I was a flight control test engineer for Boeing. Since then I have gone on to a 35 year career for the Air Force as a flight control/flying qualities engineer. It is hard for me to fathom that a responsible flight control engineer would design a system that makes input into a primary flight control system with a single point failure such as MCAS. Yes, there were pilot procedures in place in case of a failure, but that those procedures were to be used after only one failure. The sensor input into MCAS should of been at a minimum dual redundant. The challenge is determining which angle of attack system is correct. There are many ways to implement redundancy management and fault detection, but these require a lot of lab testing as part of the development process. I fear that cost and/or schedule on either Boeing’s part or the FAA’s DER/DAR process, forced decisions that regrettably resulted in the loss of many lives. Hopefully, the various investigations will shed light on where the failures, be they technical, management, process, or a combination of all three occurred.

Richard Mutzman

1 COMMENT

  1. There’s talk about how Boeing intends for MCAS to use two sensors instead of one, in future. This removes the sensor as a single point of failure, but what about MCAS itself? It appears to be an non-redundant system with full trim authority. As a result of the crashes, it may now be programmed not to use the full authority, or not to use it so often, but this does not prevent it from doing so in the event of a fault, such a short in one of the processor output pins, or whatever it is using as a switch to control the trim motor.

    At the least, it needs a separate system to limit its authority so that it cannot drive the trim all the way forwards regardless of what may go wrong with it.

    Sylvia Else