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Michael Lueck

Risk Management

What’s Behind Boeing’s Production Shutdown of the MAX Aircraft?

Computer system, cutting corners, self-certification all play a part

Published: Tuesday, January 14, 2020 - 13:03

After the first crash, of Lion Air in Indonesia in October 2018, people blamed poor maintenance and insufficient pilot training. When a second airliner, an Ethiopian Air aircraft, crashed in March 2019, similarities quickly transpired. There was no apparent external influence such as poor weather. Neither was there any interference with the flight decks, as in a hijacking.

In both cases the pilots could not keep the aircraft from nose-diving. Airlines and regulators around the world started grounding the MAX indefinitely. Australia’s Civil Aviation Authority prohibited any B737 MAX aircraft in its airspace, followed by New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority.

Surprisingly, the last authority to clamp down was the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, the governmental body in charge of certifying aircraft.

At first, Boeing was optimistic the aircraft would reenter service by the end of 2019, but recertification has been delayed several times. Globally, 387 MAX aircraft have been delivered and about 400 are grounded. The production shutdown is expected to take several months, with ramifications for suppliers and thousands of jobs at risk.

Aircraft computer system likely at fault

The suspected cause of the problems on board the two doomed airliners was a system new to the latest iteration of the previously best-selling commercial aircraft—the B737. The MAX series, the fourth generation of the aircraft, entered service in 1968 in its first version (B737-100). The 737 MAX is the latest version and started flying in 2018.

Boeing’s main competitor, Airbus, developed the A320 family in the same category as the B737, but included new, more fuel-efficient engines. Boeing was under pressure to counter this when it developed the MAX series.

It shifted its larger new engines to provide more ground clearance, but this changed the balance of the aircraft, and it tended to pitch up. Boeing created a computer system called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which would detect any unwanted upward pitch and automatically force the nose down.

Shortly after take-off, the Lion Air 737 MAX pilots struggled to stay in the air. The aircraft kept pulling down despite the nose not pitching up. Similarly, the pilots of the Ethiopian flight were not able to control the continuous forcing down of the nose.

Crash investigations are yet to be completed, but information released so far points to Boeing’s computer system and a faulty gauge that measures the angle at which the aircraft is flying.

Since the grounding, Boeing has worked tirelessly on a software fix, but regulators found other issues. These include problems with software affecting flaps and other flight-control hardware, and issues with rudder cables potentially affected by a so-called uncontained engine failure. In the latter, parts of the engine blades detach and may fly at high speed into the fuselage, severing these cables.

Cutting corners at cost of safety

It is becoming increasingly clear Boeing has cut corners, presumably under pressure from the performance of its Airbus competitor. Boeing has been accused of delivering the aircraft before it was ready to fly safely.

It has transpired that Boeing may have been aware of computer system problems even before the Lion Air crash, but delivered the aircraft without modification or information to airlines. Even after the crash, Boeing did not halt deliveries. Instead, it worked to fix the software and told pilots there was a potential problem.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not intervene, either, despite its own analysis showing that, without intervention, the plane was likely to crash about one or two times a year. Equally astonishing is that the pilot manual for the MAX did not mention the new system. Instead, training for pilots moving from the previous 737NG to the new 737 MAX consisted of a 56-minute iPad video, but no training inflight simulators.

A Joint Authorities Technical Review found: “The lack of a unified top-down development and evaluation of the system function and its safety analyses, combined with the extensive and fragmented documentation, made it difficult to assess whether compliance was fully demonstrated.”

Boeing taking on part of aircraft certification

In a hearing by the U.S. House Transportation Committee, a whistle-blower revealed he urged Boeing managers to halt production because of mistakes, errors, and corner-cutting, as well as an overworked workforce.

Of further concern is that the FAA has shifted some of its work to the manufacturer. Boeing now does parts of the certification process. This is not in the interest of safety. Overseas regulators, such the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, have criticized this approach.

The MAX disaster has already cost Boeing billions of dollars. Prior to the grounding, it produced 52 aircraft per month. It has since reduced production to 40, all of which are now parked.

The production halt will have ripple effects on U.S. suppliers, with tens of thousands of jobs at risk. The fallout is likely to affect the wider U.S. economy and many suppliers in Europe and in China.

As of December 2019, Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg has resigned.

I have flown on many Boeing aircraft and never felt unsafe. But with recent problems with the Dreamliner, the MAX, and most recently the 777X, I question if Boeing has shifted from a safety-first philosophy to prioritizing profits and dividends for its shareholders.The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.


About The Author

Michael Lueck’s picture

Michael Lueck

Michael Lueck is a professor of tourism at Auckland University of Technology.


Jim McNerny

Blame it on the bean counters like Jim McNerney who destroyed 3M's R&D by focusing on shareholder returns and cost cutting future oriented programs and then abandonded 3M for Boeing despite announcing publically to the 3M employees that he was staying at 3M.  When discussions of meeting the Airbus A320 challange the engineers at Boeing opted for a brand new modern airplane design instead of trying to retrofit a 1960's design.  McNerney, not an engineer, thought it cheaper to retrofit.  Bad decision!

Michael, Thanks for sharing

Michael, Thanks for sharing this in such a clear and concise way for readers to understand the history and the issues here. As an engineer by education and a data analyst (statistician) by training, I'm deeply concerned by the absence of adequate controls in place, combined with the lack of presentation of prevailing data, to demonstrate that this "new" aircraft was both safe and effective for flight use. To me the risk is as high or higher than any implantable medical device environment -- how is Boeing (and it's competitors for that matter) being run today?  Especially in a profit-centric and de-regulation focused "booming" US economy?  I would rather fly in the planes made in the 60s than fly in this supposed "new" aircraft, doctored up with so called software to compensate for the fact that Boeing was too cheap to do the right thing and redesign the aircraft around the new engines. More than 200 lives were cost and I don't see them remedying this without grounding the MAX permanently and going back to the drawing board.  I will make it a point to do everything I can to not fly on this aircraft if the regulators put it back into flight.