By Lauren Ensor

The story of the 737 MAX affair begins, as commercial ventures often do, as a response to competitor initiative and ingenuity. The Airbus A320neo promised airlines an aircraft – more aerodynamic and with modified engines – that would dramatically reduce fuel usage and overall cost to the user. Boeing, which had previously dominated the market of passenger airlines, was determined to meet its rival by introducing a passenger jet with all the aforementioned qualities, albeit surpassing on fuel consumption (and efficiency) by fourteen percent. Scholars and analysts observed the quick succession of events from the time this market competitor struggle began in 2011, until the tragedies of two fatal crashes in October of 2017 and later, in March 2018.

Unanimously they concluded that Boeing’s perceived risk to market dominance and subsequent threats to their profit were the main reasons critical safety factors were ignored – which in turn, led to both aircraft fatalities. Collectively, the crashes involving Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian flight 302 had ended a total of 346 lives, necessitating urgent need for investigators to find out what exactly had gone wrong. Statements provided by engineers working for Boeing detailed the intensive pressure Boeing executives placed on their employees to meet deadlines, “[T]he timeline was extremely compressed” they confessed, “It was go, go, go.” Even the standard certification period, usually required for any introductory aircraft, was reduced under nominal Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) procedures, owed to the assertion that the 737 MAX was a modified version of the former 737 NG and therefore, not a new aircraft.

Consensus on engineering fallibilities after both crashes brings to light both Boeing’s overconfidence and the FAA’s shortcomings. Analysts Bruno Silveira Cruz and Murillo de Oliveira Diaz detailed how the traditional 737 airframe was pushed to physical limits under the new design which slightly increased fuselage width and extended the tail, while dramatically increasing the engine diameter, necessitating a shift in their location on the wings which affected rear stabiliser position. The model was, in a word, unstable. It had a dangerous propensity to thrust upwards in a nose-up Angle of Attack (AoA), making it more susceptible to stall during take-off, landing or when the plane was in a hard banking motion. No one denies Boeing realised this but instead of changing the design (which would have added to their timeline), they remedied this questionable engineering with a software solution. Thus the 737 MAX was equipped with a Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System or, MCAS software – designed to mitigate unstable aircraft movement by “trimming” the nose, which worked to keep the plane level when it underwent strenuous movement.

Although the final report on both incidents is yet to be released by the FAA, analysts have deduced both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights crashed due to the failing of this software system. The point analysts diverge on is the litigation aspect: Who is to blame? Every party recognises faulty sensors feeding data to the MCAS caused both aircraft to assume a nose-down position, until both aircraft lost all altitude and impacted. Accounts also indicate that many pilots, if not the airlines themselves, were entirely ignorant of MCAS’ existence.  Yet some suggest it was not impossible for pilots to effectively disable MCAS, nor was it out of the airline’s power to have purchased additional sensory equipment that would have mitigated unreliable data (albeit at an additional, optional cost to the airline). However, evidence from flight data retrieved after the Lion Air’s accident, revealed its pilots (unaware of MCAS’ existence) followed all typical procedures – desperately searching through system manuals and applying standard practices – to regain control over the aircraft. Additionally, pilots who have successfully flown the 737 MAX, argued that flying the MAX in anything less than perfect conditions, places crew and passengers at unnecessary risk. They claimed that if proper pilot training had been established, disaster could have been avoided, presenting a complication Boeing overlooked in favour of a less inconvenient and more timely delivery for its customers.

Legally, both arguments can be held up to some scrutiny. In his article, Technological Solutions to Human Error and How They Can Kill You: Understanding the Boeing 737 Max Products Liability Litigation, Bradley Wendel identified these legal complexities surrounding the 737 MAX case; whether the manufacturer is entirely at fault owed to faulty aircraft design or, if the airlines themselves are responsible owed to cost cutting and possible poor crew performances. His is a neutral and reasonably convincing point of view, concluding, “[R]isks cannot be divided neatly into product defects and human error. Rather, these two sources of risk influence each other in complex ways. ”All parties then, to varying degrees, will take away vital lessons from these tragedies. Boeing, in particular, should understand how profit took precedence over safety if it is to avoid any future aviation disasters.

Lauren Ensor is a masters student studying conflict and terrorism studies at the University of Auckland.

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