I have touched on Boeing’s 737 MAX many times in these editorial comments and, to be honest, I had hoped that the next time I covered the subject it would be to announce that the aircraft was due to enter regular service once again, following its successful flight tests. But it appears that that is not the case and Boeing’s reputation continues to take a hammering. It has emerged that the aircraft manufacturer had failed to submit certification documents to the FAA, back in 2016, on the modification made to MCAS installed on the 737 MAX. The MCAS system has the capability of lowering the airliner’s nose automatically, under certain flight conditions.
It has now emerged in a report, released on 1 July 2020, by the US Department of Transportation Inspector General’s office that FAA flight test personnel were aware of the change, but “key” agency certification engineers and those staff responsible for establishing if any additional levels of pilot training were necessary told the Inspector General’s office that they were not informed.
Additionally, the report revealed that as Boeing’s safety analysis did not assess system-level safety risks as significant, so company engineers designed MCAS to rely on data from just one aircraft sensor on the MAX. However, Boeing did not relay to the FAA the formal safety risk assessments related to MCAS until November 2016 and January 2017, a delay of up to four and five years respectively into the five-year certification process. Senior managers with the FAA told the Inspector General’s office that “it isn’t unusual” for aircraft manufacturers to complete and submit a safety assessment near the end of the approval process, so this did not raise any concerns.
As Boeing presented the software as a minor modification to the 737’s existing speed trim system that would activate itself only in a limited, highly specific condition, the FAA did not focus too heavily on the MCAS system during its certification process. The result is that a thorough evaluation of the system did not take place between either the engineers within the FAA or Boeing. The FAA focused its attention on what it thought were the high-risk areas on the aircraft, such as the larger engines, fly-by-wire spoilers and modifications made to the undercarriage.
It has been explained as a miscommunication, a lack of clarity, or Boeing allegedly trying to conceal something, in a desperate race to remain ahead of its greatest rival Airbus, which was effectively taking orders away from the company with its new models.
While this has often been stated as a wake-up call for the entire aviation industry, I believe it to be regarded as one of the most significant events in aviation history. The lessons learnt from this need to be remembered and drummed into the next generation of aircraft designers, engineers and CEOs who will always put safety above profit.