The cover story in this week’s Sunday New York Times Magazine is “What Really Caused the Deadly Crashes of the Boeing 737 Max?“. While acknowledging that malfunctions caused the crashes, it also documents in detail the errors made by the crews of Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 that might have prevented them. It describes Lion Air’s dismal safety record and culture of corruption. It discusses the weaknesses and failures of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that was incorporated in the Max to address certain design problems that can cause the aircraft to stall during takeoff. It also describes the global decline in “airmanship” – the ability of pilots to adjust intuitively to changes in aircraft performance and flight conditions – which was a contributing factor to these crashes.
The author concludes that “all signs are that the reintroduction of the 737 Max will be exceedingly difficult because of political and bureaucratic obstacles that are formidable and widespread.”
William Langewiesche, the author of the article, is a writer at large for the New York Times Magazine. He is a former correspondent for The Atlantic and Vanity Fair. He “grew up” in aviation and was a pilot before he became a journalist.
Here are some of my observations and key takeaways from the article:
- To compensate for the decline in airmanship, Airbus has embraced “robotic” aircraft designs that minimize required piloting skills. Boeing, on the other hand, has maintained pilot-centric designs.
- With its adoption of the MCAS system, the Boeing 737 Max might be considered a hybrid between the robotic designs of Airbus and the traditional pilot-centric designs of Boeing. As a result, when the MCAS fails to work properly, pilots are required to utilize their airmanship skills along with their knowledge of how MCAS can affect the operation of the aircraft to correct the problems that ultimately led to the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
- While Mr. Langewiesche is able to convey quite effectively much of the detail involved in the two flights to build a case that the pilots made significant errors or did not have the skills that they should have had, the narratives (to someone like me who is not a pilot) seem quite complex, making it possible to see how pilots without the requisite experience might have become confused. Thus, it seems evident that the failure of MCAS has added to the challenge faced by Boeing to anticipate problems that might have occurred with the widespread rollout of the Max and specifically to try to ensure that pilots had sufficient training to handle any problems that might have arisen.
- If Mr. Langewieche is correct in his assessment that getting the 737 Max back in the air will be exceedingly difficult, it would seem prudent for Boeing to pursue a phased reintroduction that would build confidence in the aircraft’s airworthiness over time. Thus, it should first seek approval from the FAA to reintroduce the 737 Max on domestic flights and then work with individual countries to gain approval for use in their domestic flights and in flights between their countries and the U.S. Regaining approval in Europe is obviously important, but political pressure from supporters of Airbus may very well add to the challenge of getting regulators to declare the aircraft safe.
- Mr. Langewieche believes that this episode will add to the pressure on Boeing to adopt robotic designs similar to Airbus’s (and thus hasten the decline in airmanship). If so, a large portion of orders for the 737 Max may eventually be canceled and it will take time for Boeing to design a replacement for the 737 Max.
- The article will almost certainly get a response from Boeing and other interested parties that will add to the ongoing debate about the reintroduction of the 737 Max.
- In summary, the article, while generally supportive of Boeing (without minimizing its blame for the flaws in the MCAS system) adds support to the view that the Max will not return to full service (and full production) in late 2019 or early 2020, as many had hoped or predicted.
- If so, General Electric’s aviation business, which produces the Leap engine for the 737 Max through CFM, its joint venture with Safran Aircraft Engines, may continue to face a drag on its revenue and profits from the grounding and slow reintroduction of the 737 Max well into 2020. GE may be able to pick up some of the lost Boeing orders from an accompanying near-term increase in orders of the Airbus a320, but it faces great competition at Airbus from other engine manufacturers, including Pratt & Whitney.
September 22, 2019
Stephen P. Percoco
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