On 10 March, shortly after take-off, an Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max passenger jet slammed into the ground, killing all 157 on board. Months earlier another 737 Max, operated by Lion Air, crashed in similar circumstances, killing 189 passengers and crew.
A coincidence? US flight attendants’ trade unions called for the planes to be grounded and told members they wouldn’t be forced to work a 737 Max flight. Many airlines worldwide immediately grounded their 737 Max fleets.
Only several days later did the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air safety, ground the plane operating in the US – having earlier defended US airlines for continuing to fly their 737 Max fleets.
Boeing, the aircraft’s manufacturer, denied there was any common underlying fault. But the Wall Street Journal reported that both crashes were due to the same software problem.
Boeing is a huge US company that generated $100 billion in revenue last year. Its economic weight in US and global markets gives it enormous political clout. It employs lobbyists in Washington DC to obtain lucrative government contracts and makes large political donations – $827,000 in February alone.
Former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan also sits in Trump’s cabinet as acting secretary of defence. Embarrassingly for the president (if it’s possible to embarrass Trump) the Pentagon’s office of the inspector general last month began an investigation into allegations that Shanahan tried to enhance Boeing’s contracts with the government.
The roots of this air disaster go back a decade when Boeing’s 737 series’ main rival, Airbus, announced the fitting of new, fuel-efficient engines on its 320 series. This put Boeing under big financial pressure to catch up with its competitor. But re-engineering the 737 with similar engines was, technically, far more complicated.
Instead of building a new plane – a lengthy and costly process – Boeing opted to modify its existing 737 design to maintain its customer base.
With Boeing desperate to get the 737 Max flying, the FAA’s top management reportedly pressured its safety engineers to let Boeing approve the aircraft themselves.
The FAA, by allowing Boeing to effectively self-certify its planes, is open to the charge of compromising air safety to satisfy the business model and hence profits of this multi-billion dollar corporation.
The installation of larger, heavier engines altered the 737’s aerodynamics and made it prone to stall. To compensate, a ‘manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system’ (MCAS) software device was installed – which in flight automatically forces the nose of the plane down to prevent stalling.
Prior to the Lion Air crash some pilots had no idea MCAS existed. The cockpit voice recorder recovered from the Lion Air plane indicates that the pilots immediately before the crash were frantically trying to figure out why the plane’s nose kept on pushing down despite their attempts to correct the angle.
‘Angle of attack’ sensors fitted in the nose of the plane – showing how far the plane is pointed up or down – had given false readings.
A cockpit indicator light to notify of faulty sensors was not fitted as standard by Boeing but sold as an $80,000 optional extra. Neither Lion Air nor Ethiopian Airlines had purchased this warning light.
Boeing’s share price plummeted after both crashes – dropping 10% in one week after the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The company is now desperate to get the 737 Max fleets airborne and has announced a fix to the software fault.
But how can the public have any confidence in air safety when regulators and aircraft manufacturers collude to ensure profits?
Survivors’ families of the crashes are pursuing legal action. But there must also be an independent inquiry, led by the trade unions and involving passenger groups and others, to thoroughly examine the role played by Boeing, airlines and governments in this disaster.
Moreover, public ownership of the aviation industry under democratic workers’ control and management is the only way to remove the profit motive and enable air safety to be the top priority.
By Dave Carr