Boeing, the FAA and Politicization of Aviation Safety

The United States is the cradle of modern aviation. It is where the world’s first flight with a powered, controlled and sustained aircraft was conducted by the Wright Brothers in 1903. It has given the aviation world many notable names — such as Charles Lindbergh, the first to fly in a transatlantic flight in 1927, and Amelia Earhart, the first female pilot who flew across the Atlantic in 1932. The United States is also home to Boeing, which created aircrafts that are very popular within the airline industry, such as the 747, 737, 777s, and the latest in their lineup the fuel efficient twin engine 787. Boeing has also reached a wide audience across the globe. Many airlines in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, Africa operated Boeing aircrafts.

When Boeing launches a new type of aircraft, it must go through a certification process by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA in short). For Boeing to fly the aircraft that they produce, the company needs a type certification from the FAA. Acting Administrator of the FAA, Daniel K Elwell, testified to the Senate Commerce Committee on March 27th, saying that the FAA’s method of ‘proactive, data-driven approach to oversight’ that considers safety above all else has cemented the FAA’s contribution into making the United States airspace to be the safest in the world, and makes the FAA the global leader in aviation safety (Elwell, 2019). Every civil aviation regulator in the world is constantly held to ‘FAA standards’, and therefore the FAA sets the highest bar in aviation safety standards. The FAA has a tremendous responsibility to maintain itself and the United States as a global leader in aviation safety and innovation. 

On October 29th, 2018, a Boeing 737-MAX 8 belonging to Lion Air crashed minutes after take off from Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Jakarta, Indonesia on a regular flight to Depati Amir Airport in Pangkal Pinang. A few months after the Lion Air crash, on March 10th, 2019, an Ethiopian Airlines 737-MAX 8 crashed minutes after takeoff in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on a flight to Nairobi, Kenya. With both crashes, one system from the MAX-8 is the focus point of investigators and aviation enthusiasts alike.

The system in question is the MCAS or the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation Software. The MCAS is designed to trim the aircraft down when the angle of attack of the plane is reaching beyond its normal limits. It is not as the media reports an anti-stall system, but rather a tool to help pilots notice that a stall is imminent. A stall happens when the wing of an aircraft cannot generate lift to sustain normal flight. The MCAS received its data from the angle of attack sensors in the plane’s nose. When the AOA sensors feel that the plane is exceeding its normal flight envelope, the MCAS kicks in and trims the nose down. On both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines incidents, the angle of attack sensors provided false readings that caused the MCAS to think the plane was approaching a stall when it wasn’t.

If the MCAS fails, which happened on the two planes, pilots are trained to deal with a situation known as the ‘runaway stabilizer’. MCAS failure provides a scenario that is identical to the runaway stabilizer, a situation where the trim of the aircraft fails to stop at the trim levels desired in the cockpit. The standard procedure, which is a memory item for us pilots to remember, is to use the trim cutout switches underneath the flaps levers, and if that fails we must hold the trim wheel in the throttle quadrant using the ‘grasp and hold technique’.

The aviation industry is shocked to learn that the MAX-8, only in its first two years in service, already suffered two crashes that took the lives of 346 people combined. This is a Boeing-made aircraft. An aircraft that had gone through the rigorous process of FAA certification. As an aviation enthusiast, I ask myself the question: how did the MAX 8 even get its airworthiness certificate?

Rushed process

In 2011, American Airlines decided to purchase 260 Airbus planes in one of the largest aviation orders in history. Boeing was faced with what the New York Times characterized as “an unthinkable defection” (Gelles, Kitroeff, Nicas, & Ruiz, 2019). American’s order for Airbus was enough for Boeing to ditch their ideas of a new passenger jet and instead focus on improving their 737NG aircrafts. Thus, the 737-MAX was born. According to the Times article, Boeing promised that the MAX would be done in six years. As a result, Boeing rushed the 737 MAX design process so that they could compete with their European rivals.

In the aviation world, rushing things is never a good idea. The stakes are just simply too high. The Times article indicated that Boeing had to ‘play catch-up’ with Airbus. Engineers had to create technical drawings at a faster rate, and the development was dominated with tight deadlines and budget. One engineer said to the Times that the timeline was ‘extremely compressed’.

Besides rushing the development process, Boeing wanted to ensure that the 737 MAX would essentially be the same as the previous 737 models. Boeing wanted to limit the changes in the cockpit as much as possible so that pilots didn’t have to through another training for a type rating for the MAX. This would cut a lot of training costs for the airlines that ordered the aircraft. Airbus did the same with their new A320 NEOs. Certification of the aircraft by the FAA is also a ‘go go go’ process. The Seattle Times wrote that the FAA instructed their safety engineers to delegate the assessment of the MAX 8 to Boeing engineers and instructed FAA safety engineers to quickly approve the assessment made by Boeing itself. Boeing’s safety analysis itself is flawed. It is abnormal for a company to assess its own product. And on an aircraft, certification by a third-party is very important. This is where the FAA failed to be the ‘guardian’ of aviation safety.

FAA’s epic blunder

Calvin Scovel, Inspector General of the United States Department of Transportation (the FAA’s parent agency), in a written statement to the Senate Commerce Committee argued that because of increased automation in the cockpit, it is vital that the FAA take steps to ‘ensure that air carriers meet its requirements for the system’ that includes training for pilots on how to respond to abnormal flight conditions should the automation system in the planes fail. Scovel argued that the FAA must ‘implement effective risk-based oversight of organizations that performs certification work on the Agency’s behalf’ and that they must maintain a strong safety culture. In the case of the MAX-8 crashes, the FAA failed on every aspect of oversight that their parent agency expected of them.

The first failure of the FAA was in not ensuring that Boeing properly informs their customers about the MCAS software that can affect the flight controls in the MAX. One of the aspects during the FAA’s certification process of the 737 MAX is the assessment of the new MCAS software. Since this is an automation software that can impact normal flight operations, it should have been the FAA’s job to inspect the MCAS. Instead, the FAA delegated this crucial safety analysis to Boeing. Boeing sent an analysis report to the FAA regarding the MCAS, and came up with the following results:

  • An understated analysis of the power of their new flight control system. MCAS is actually capable of trimming the fail further than what Boeing assessed. FAA failed to notice this discrepancy in their test flights with the MAX-8.
  • Assessed that the MCAS failure is one level below ‘catastrophic’, yet the FAA handed an airworthiness directive to the 737-MAX 8. Boeing classified the MCAS as ‘hazardous’, an obviously incorrect certification.
  • Boeing overlooked the fact that MCAS is capable of resetting on its own, resulting in repeated pitch down movements.

The biggest blunder made by the FAA was in ignoring Boeing’s analysis that should an MCAS failure occur, the results could be catastrophic. FAA certified the aircraft anyway, under pressure from Boeing to quickly complete the process so that they could compete with Airbus. Up until the crash of JT610, MCAS was never disclosed to pilots who fly the MAX-8. Pilots from American Airlines and Southwest were never informed about the MCAS during their transition training from the 737-NG to the 737-MAX. The biggest pilot union in the country, the US Air Line Pilots Association, urges the FAA and the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) to properly inform the pilots of a system that can affect the normal operation of a flight. The reason given for Boeing not putting the MCAS in MAX-8 manuals is their concern of ‘inundating average pilots with too much information’.

American Airlines pilots who fly the MAX-8 had disclosed their concerns with the MCAS in the ASRS (Aviation Safety Reporting System) system, a confidential reporting system set up by the FAA themselves. Yet the FAA ignored the concerns of those pilots. The failure of the FAA to notice this is the biggest breach of trust between pilots and the FAA, the United States, and consequently the world.

Political aspects of both crashes

Boeing and the United States government have good relations with each other. There are numerous defense contracts awarded by the Department of Defense to Boeing. In terms of lobbying spending in Washington, Boeing has been ranked at #10 by Open Secrets: Center for Responsive Politics, above Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the two other primary defense contractors in the US.

Boeing and President Trump also have warm relations. Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenberg praised Trump’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Job Act, which slashed the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%. Boeing also established a Political Action Committee and donated to politicians. In the 2018 midterms, Boeing’s PAC donated 43% of their money to Democratic candidates, and 57% to Republican candidates (Schroeder, 2019). As explained by those facts, Boeing is a major lobbying group in Congress and as a consequence, they have the influence to sway things in their favor. Boeing also has a ‘cozy’ relationship with the FAA.

In the aftermath of the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the FAA did not take immediate action to ground the 737-MAX 8. Knowing that they helped Boeing in fulfilling their profit-first objective with the MAX, defying traditional FAA standards and in complete disregard of their role as the aviation world’s guardian, FAA put out a statement in the aftermath of the ET302 crash. Refusing to acknowledge that the JT610 and ET302 crashes were eerily similar, they wrote that they were not able to ‘draw any conclusions or take any actions’. The world’s standard for aviation safety had chosen to disregard the obvious faults with the 737-MAX 8.

Immediately after, the Civil Aviation Administration of China ordered Chinese airlines to ground all 737-MAX 8. This was a huge blow to Boeing, as China is the company’s biggest and growing market. Speculations arose that China took politically motivated action to ground American-made aircrafts. The grounding also happened in the middle of a trade war between China and the US.

The European Union’s aviation regulator, EASA, then grounded the aircraft on March 12th. The United States and the European Union are also in the midst of tense relations. The grounding of the MAX by the EU could sway airlines into buying Airbus planes and could launch EASA as a potential replacement for the FAA as the world’s ‘aviation guardian’. Back in Washington, Boeing’s CEO called President Trump and assured him that the MAX was still airworthy and it is safe to fly. The FAA did not ground the aircraft, despite the actions from other aviation regulators. On March 13th, after Canada banned the MAX from their airspace, Trump made the personal decision to ban the MAX.

The US government’s inaction in the MAX situation raises a lot of questions surrounding the government’s interests. The lingering question is whether the government has Boeing’s interests at heart, rather than the flying public’s interest. A senior White House official told the Washington Post that the FAA justified not grounding the aircraft because Boeing has a reputation for making safe airplanes, and that they have no grounds to ground the aircraft.

Despite their assurances to the President, they chose to ignore the fact that two Boeing 737-MAX 8s crashed, taking the lives of 350 people.

Conclusions

The inaction towards the grounding of the MAX indicated the politicization of aviation safety in the United States. Politics clearly prevented the Trump administration from banning the 737-MAX. Because of the cozy relationship Boeing has with the FAA, the government agency that is supposed to be the watchdog of aviation safety, they lobbied the Trump administration to not ground the aircraft. Trump also didn’t like the fact that the Chinese grounded American-made aircraft in the midst of his trade war. Nor did Trump like the optics of the European Union, which Trump has recently slapped for not fulfilling its NATO obligations, grounding Boeing jets. These factors, along with the Boeing CEO’s personal call to Trump, convinced Trump to not ground the plane. The fact that Trump listened to the CEO of Boeing instead of civil aviation regulators around the world is a worrying sign.

Politics have no place in aviation. The safety interest of the flying public should be the paramount objective of the FAA and the Department of Transportation. Boeing was so bent on beating Airbus with the 737 MAX, that in the end Boeing shot themselves in the foot by pressuring the FAA to cut corners for a quick certification of the MAX. The chase after profits in the end caused 350 people their lives. And politics also almost stopped any attempts to fix the plane by not grounding them.

Effective aviation oversight in the United States should involve the FAA and the Department of Transportation as ‘checks and balances’ to Boeing and other US-based manufacturers, rather than as a ‘partner in crime’ to Boeing. Congress must implement stricter oversight of the FAA as well, and reforms must be made. The FAA must also receive bigger funding to prevent the FAA from delegating assessment to aircraft manufacturers.

References :

Elwell, D. (2019, 3 27). The State of Airline Safety: Federal Oversight of Commercial Aviation. Retrieved from United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation: https://www.commerce.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/1454addb-047f-444f-bede-dc9413d6d141/DDB0E9B96DD3144907F55DD6548F765D.acting-administrator-elwell-testimony.pdf

Gelles, D., Kitroeff, N., Nicas, J., & Ruiz, R. (2019, 3 23). Boeing Was ‘Go, Go, Go’ to Beat Airbus With the 737 Max. Retrieved from The New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/23/business/boeing-737-max-crash.html

Schroeder, R. (2019, 3 14). As Congress readies for hearings, here’s a look at Boeing’s influence in Washington. Retrieved from MarketWatch: https://www.marketwatch.com/story/as-congress-readies-for-hearings-heres-a-look-at-boeings-influence-in-washington-2019-03-14

Gates, D. (2019, 3 17). Flawed analysis, failed oversight: How Boeing, FAA certified the suspect 737 MAX flight control system. Retrieved from The Seattle Times: https://www.seattletimes.com/business/boeing-aerospace/failed-certification-faa-missed-safety-issues-in-the-737-max-system-implicated-in-the-lion-air-crash/

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