As preliminary details emerge of the loss in April of the Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX, the actions of the pilots appear to be beyond any criticism. Initial reports indicate that they followed the “prescribed Boeing and recommended FAA approved emergency procedures to handle the most difficult emergency situation created on the aircraft.”
The crew were trained and followed instructions – but they were still unable to prevent the 737’s nose from repeatedly going down. These initial conclusions aren’t a clear indication that the fault lies with Boeing, but they are creating tensions amongst everyone involved in the investigation process.
Ethiopia’s Transport Minister, Dagmawit Moges, did not refer to the MAX anti-stall system directly, but highlighted the fact that “the crew performed all the procedures repeatedly provided by the manufacturer but was unable to control the aircraft.”
Although the focus of attention has been on the alleged failure of the MCAS system, any other primary and contributing factors to the crash will be determined once the whole investigation process is over. This could take up to a year.
Meanwhile Boeing has submitted a potential series of software upgrades for the MAX series. New build 737 MAXs continue to roll off the production line at Renton, Washington, at a rate of around 47 per month, only to go straight into temporary storage. If approved, at what point are the new upgrades installed – on the production line as new airframes are being assembled, or will they first be retro-fitted to completed aircraft in storage? Boeing’s technical staff have some challenging and busy times ahead.
Less serious, but still capable of grounding an airline and impacting revenue, is a rising lack of pilots. This is regarded as a worldwide problem for the future, but the impact of the shortage was felt last week by Flybe. On 3 March, an absence of flight deck crew meant a host of flights were cancelled, leaving thousands of people stranded in the UK. The airline was quick to respond explaining that: “the additional impacts of a current restructuring and seasonality compounded the problems on the day.” That’s little comfort for those who didn’t check their phone, missed the explanatory text message from the airline and arrived at the airport bright and early to catch a flight that didn’t happen…and were simply left standing.