By Mfoniso Ipke and Jane Lee
What is the Boeing 737 Max Series?
The Boeing 737 Max Series is an aircraft series which entered service in 2017. It was meant to be an “updated version” of the Boeing 737 New Generation series, running at fuel-efficient, low-operating costs. Due to the design similarities between the two generations, the 737 Max design was self-certified, and the company claimed that pilots would require minimal training to enhance marketability. This in combination with a fundamental design flaw led to fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, which both involved the Boeing 737 Max 8 in particular.
Two Fatal Crashes of the Boeing 737 Max 8
- October 29, 2018: Lion Air flight 610 crashes in the Java Sea, killing 189 passengers.
- March 10, 2019: Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashes minutes after take-off, killing 157 passengers
Following the crash in March 2019, the plane was grounded around the world, and Boeing was left to fix its fundamental design flaws.
The Fundamental Design Flaw
The fundamental design flaw of the aircraft was in the placement of its engine. The engine of the 737 Max 8 was larger than that of the previous generation, requiring it to be placed higher than before. This forced the nose of the plane to point upward during full thrust. To combat this flaw, the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) software was implemented to automatically push the nose down in these situations. However, incorrect sensor data would sometimes cause the plane to be pushed downwards toward the ground, which is what caused the crashes.
Should the 737 Max Stay in Service?
Following the crashes, there were mixed responses within the aviation industry on whether the 737 Max should stay in service or not:
- US-Based Boeing
- Aircraft underwent extensive tests and certifications; it is deemed safe
- American Airlines
- Full confidence in aircraft safety
- Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)
- Review of aircraft shows no systematic issues; no basis to order grounding
- Civil Aviation Administration of China:
Ordered nationwide grounding following detection of numerous defects found with MCAS and associated systems
- Other nations worldwide including Canada, France, Germany, etc.:
Ordered grounding on the basis that there was minimal oversight from FAA in aircraft and pilot certification
Public Response and Investigation
Despite some support from aviation industries to keep the 737 Max in service, the crashes sparked public debate and an investigation. Multiple media outlets provided insight on the matter. The Seattle Times disclosed the managerial practices of Boeing and the FAA, stating that a system known as the Organisation Designation Authority (ODA) allowed Boeing to legally act on the behalf of the FAA to certify its own designs. This claim was backed by former NASA engineer Mike Slack. He expressed that much of the aircraft certification process was done by manufacturers and a delegate authority from the FAA, creating an ethical conundrum. Furthermore, The Wall Street Journal revealed that Boeing failed to share information on the design flaw a year prior to the Lion Air crash, suggesting that the company was aware of the issue but simply disregarded it. Following the investigation, changes were to be made to the 737 Max software, which is currently undergoing testing. Several lawsuits have also been settled with the families of the victims.
The main takeaway is that an engineer’s duty is to the public and should consider the public’s safety in all projects. With that in mind, safety should never be compromised for cost-efficient solutions. The FAA and other aviation authorities should demand mandatory, extensive training for pilots with updates to software regardless of how miniscule. Additionally, the certifying of aircrafts by their manufacturers should cease to avoid any conflicts of interest.
- “Nearly a year after it began, the boeing 737 max crisis still drags on. here’s the complete history of the plane that’s been grounded since 2 crashes killed 346 people 5 months apart.” 2020. [Online]. Available: https://www.businessinsider.com/boeing-737-max-timeline-history-full-details-2019-9
- “Boeing’s effort to get the 737 max approved to fly again, explained,” 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.https://www.vox.com/2019/4/5/18296646/boeing-737-max-mcas-software-update
- “Boeing 737 max lion air crash caused by series of failures,” 2019. [Online]. Available: https: //www.bbc.com/news/business-50177788
- “How the faa allows jetmakers to ‘self certify’ that planes meet u.s. safety requirements,” 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/ how-the-faa-allows-jetmakers-to-self-certify-that-planes-meet-us-safety-requirements/2019/03/15/ 96d24d4a-46e6-11e9-90f0-0ccfeec87a61 story.html
- “Boeing and f.a.a. faulted in damning report on 737 max certification,” 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/11/business/boeing-737-max.html