The Covid nightmare is largely over. You’ve got the vaxx, and you, and your family, are feeling confident to book a flight again, to one of your favorite sunny destinations.
It could be Jamaica, it could be Havana, it could be Honolulu, or maybe Bali. It doesn’t really matter.
You’ve waited a long time for this, and now the day has come, to enjoy travel again, to live your life the way you want to, without government telling you what you can and can’t do.
And then you learn, the aircraft is a Boeing 737 MAX – yes, the same aircraft that was grounded and roundly demonized after killing hundreds in two crashes.
Now, you must make a decision. Do you get on the plane, with your family? Do you trust it now? Or do you switch planes, just to be safe?
Both the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Transport Canada have given the aircraft its blessings – albeit the two transportation safety agencies came up with different conclusions and demands.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) also announced that the MAX is safe to fly, citing “no stone unturned” in its review of the aircraft.
Officially, the planes are ready to go. But hey, they’ve been sitting there for months … enough time for a few gremlins to invade and cause small issues.
This past week, Canada’s vaunted Globe and Mail ran a full-page piece, by a computer-science professor, who claimed things still weren’t good with the MAX.
In fact, said Brian A Barsky – who probably doesn’t have a single hour as pilot in command of a commercial jet – the MAX still has elephantine, ill-positioned engines, situated too far forward on the wings, a design that causes unstable flight.
Barsky thinks the design was flawed from the get go, and still is. Despite the software fixes touted by Boeing and the federal agencies, the MAX remains a risky ride, he says.
Since 2019, he has been teaching a course at the University of California at Berkeley on “Boeing 737 MAX: Money, Machines and Morals in Conflict.”
First off, let’s face the truth. This was definitely not Boeing’s finest hour.
Because of its negligence, 346 people are dead, in crashes that definitely could have been avoided and prevented.
But instead of rehashing their obvious culpability, let’s move forward. Let’s hear what one of America’s greatest pilots has to say – someone who, you might say, has our backs.
Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the famed “Miracle on the Hudson” pilot, isn’t satisfied that the fixes for Boeing’s 737 MAX proposed by the FAA are enough.
In an exclusive interview last October, the celebrated pilot said that even as the FAA ungrounds the jet, additional modifications are needed to improve the plane’s crew alerting system and add a third check on the jet’s angle of attack data, The Seattle Times reported.
“I’m not going to say, ‘We’re done, good enough, move on,’” said Sullenberger.
“People are going to fly on it and I will probably be one of them,” he added. “The updated MAX will probably be as safe as the [previous model] 737 NG when they are done with it. But it’s not as good as it should be.”
At the time of that statement, Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association (APA), the union representing American Airlines pilots, said he was with Sullenberger.
Though the specific flight-control software – the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) – that brought down the jets in two fatal crashes is now fixed, Tajer said, the investigations into the crashes “have exposed other areas we can do better on that airplane,” and also on the 737 NG.
“We cannot lose this opportunity to address something that needs to be enhanced,” Tajer said.
It should be noted, at this juncture, that another Boeing 737 crashed this month in Indonesia, in a very eery way – it crashed just minutes after taking off from Jakarta, in a death spiral that is all too familiar.
However, the 737 in question was a much older jet, and not a MAX – this clearly had nothing to do with MCAS.
Back to Sullenberger.
He took his first flying lessons in 1967 at age 16, while still in high school in Texas, the same year Boeing certified the original 737.
He flew fighters in the US Air Force and was an active safety advocate in the pilot union during his 30-year airline career.
In 2009, when a flock of geese took out both engines of his US Airways jet soon after takeoff, Sullenberger guided the Airbus A320 to an emergency landing in New York City’s Hudson River, saving all 155 people on board.
The “Miracle on the Hudson” made Sullenberger an emblem of piloting skill and aviation safety.
With the ungrounding of the MAX looming, he weighed in on what still needs to be done.
His first concern echoes that of the EASA and many of the public comments submitted on the FAA proposal: MCAS on the updated MAX will take input from the jet’s two angle-of-attack sensors, but Sullenberger believes a third check is necessary.
If one of the two sensors is faulty, the computers won’t know which is correct.
The likely solution is not a third angle-of-attack vane on the jet’s exterior, but an indirect, “synthetic” software calculation of the angle of attack based on parameters such as the aircraft’s weight, speed, inertial position and GPS signal.
Boeing’s newest jet, the 787, has such a check on the reliability of its air data sensors called Synthetic Airspeed, a system Boeing rejected for the MAX on cost grounds.
“It’s really important that a third angle-of-attack input, or synthetic airspeed, be available on this airplane,” Sullenberger said. “I would hope for a rapid adoption of that technology, and the sooner the better.”
The EASA has said Boeing has agreed to develop a third angle-of-attack input after the MAX returns to service and to retrofit it to the MAX by the time the largest member of the family, the 737 MAX 10, is ready – likely one or two years away.
Sullenberger’s other main concern is that Boeing do something about the cacophony of false alerts that were triggered erroneously on the crash flights by one failed sensor.
In June 2019, at the invitation of Dave Calhoun, now Boeing chief executive officer, Sullenberger tried out both the original and the updated MCAS software in one of Boeing’s flight simulators in Miami, replicating what happened on the crashed flights.
There, he experienced “the multiple, compounded alerts and the ambiguity of the events and the physical workload and the distraction.”
“It was clear to me how the accident crews could have run out of time and altitude,” he said.
He contrasted his own experience in 2009 – when he saw the geese approach seconds before they hit and felt the shudder as they were drawn into the engines, leaving little mystery about what was happening to his airplane – with that of the crew of Lion Air Flight JT610 in 2018.
On that flight, one sensor failure set off “rapidly cascading effects through multiple systems that quickly became ambiguous and confusing,” he said. “It’s likely the crew never fully comprehended what was killing them, especially since they had never heard of MCAS.”
Sullenberger said there should be some way to shut off erroneous alerts, especially the highly distracting “stick shaker” stall warning.
Fixing this is something Transport Canada has demanded, and again Boeing has agreed to find a solution.
As for the much vaunted FAA, Sullenberger pulled no punches.
The veteran pilot said its status as the “gold standard” among aviation regulators is “shattered.”
Recently, a scathing US Senate report accused the FAA of retaliating against whistleblowers, possibly obstructing the Office of the Inspector General’s investigation into crashes, failing to hold senior managers accountable, and allowing Southwest Airlines to operate improperly certified planes.
And while FAA chief Steve Dickson has said his agency cannot share detailed technical data on the MAX fixes because it is proprietary to Boeing, Sullenberger demanded more transparency.
“This was such a failure,” he said. “Surely there is a way to protect proprietary data and still show they are taking this seriously … I want to see the hazard analysis and know what assumptions were made.”
Sullenberger certainly accepts that in the US, aviation is safer now than it ever has been.
Although one passenger died in 2018 when shrapnel from an engine blowout pierced a window on a Southwest Airlines flight, that’s the only fatality among US airlines in the past 11 years, with zero fatal crashes.
“We have made huge strides,” said Sullenberger. “We have made aviation ultrasafe.”
Still, he believes the MAX crashes could have happened in the US and the flaws revealed have ripped away the prior sense of security.
“For most of Boeing’s history, it had a stellar record for designing and building excellent airplanes,” he said. “On the MAX, the flight-control system design was flawed … They had inadvertently created a deathtrap.
“It was a matter of time until it claimed lives.”
So what are you going to do? Are you going to get on that plane? Do you feel safe and secure, that you will get from point A to point B?
Some airlines, do get it, and are doing the right thing.
At Air Canada, for example, pilots must do 40 hours of sim training equivalent to 24 hours or six sessions in the MAX trainer, and, must also do six training flights sans passengers in the actual MAX, before they are fully checked out.
Airline officials say they are fully confident in the aircraft and the MCAS monster has been slain. Air Canada is also the only airline flying the MAX, that has added the HUD system for extra safety.
Personally, though, I would feel much better … much, much better, if Boeing’s top execs would have gotten the axe after this deadly debacle. According to one aviation expert, none of that happened – most of the same top executives are still there.
As if nothing happened.
Explain that one to the families of the 346 victims, who died needlessly.
“It’s cutting costs, cutting costs, cutting costs, and I think that culture is really the root of what happened here, and that goes straight to Chicago and the board of directors,” aviation industry consultant Scott Hamilton told Seattle’s KIRO7TV.
“Half of the board of directors who were there at the creation of the MAX in 2009, they’re all still there,” he said. “Why aren’t they gone?”
Hamilton said he’s concerned fines instead of firings could mean the cost-cutting culture continues – a potentially catastrophic scenario.
“Until they’re gone, this continues to be a good old boys club, and oh, by the way, the current CEO David Calhoun was there in 2009. He was named to the board in 2009. He should be gone.”
Every single one of those top-level types should have got their walking papers – it was an opportunity to clean house, and they didn’t.
To add salt to the wound, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg earned a grotesque compensation of just under US$23.4 million for 2018, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.
And I don’t give a damn about stats that show the last decade has been the safest ever in commercial air travel.
Those stats didn’t help the victims who spiraled into terrain at 500-600km/h.
That leaves us with a stark conclusion – in essence, we have an aircraft that was badly designed from the start, a deadly software pilots were not aware of, an aerospace giant that has only done the minimum when it comes to fixes and dragging its feet on future fixes, and a cost-cutting culture unchanged … so, let’s unground the planes and see what happens.
It’s a flying crap game, and you don’t hold the dice.
To quote Sullenberger: “Eventually, whatever can happen, will happen.”
Sources: Seattle Times, KIRO7TV, Globe and Mail, BBC News
Dave Makichuk is a veteran writer and copy-editor with 35 years’ media experience who lives in Calgary and freelances for Asia Times. A dedicated Detroit Red Wings, Tigers and Lions fan, Makichuk relishes his chosen role as enemy of the state, and defender of the oppressed and downtrodden.