737 Max: Boeing generally minimizes automation but MCAS has had its crisis

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  • The two Boeing 737 Max plane crashes that killed 346 people were blamed on a faulty automated system the pilots say were unaware of.
  • Accidents have triggered a huge crisis for Boeing, losing billions of dollars, facing lawsuits, undergoing parliamentary and regulatory review, losing orders for airplanes, and losing its status as the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world.
  • There is cruel irony in the Boeing crisis, as the company has a reputation for being traditionally less supportive of automated systems than its biggest rival, Airbus.
  • And even though Boeing has been using automation for a long time, pilots and experts say the company’s philosophy has always been to keep pilots informed and give them ultimate control.
  • “I think the pilots were so unhappy with Boeing because historically Boeing has insisted that they keep pilots informed,” a former American plane crash investigator told Business Insider.
  • Visit the Business Insider home page for more stories.

The global aeronautical industry is essentially a duopoly – a decades-long transatlantic rivalry between the American Boeing and the French Airbus which, as trends change or one is hit by difficulties, becomes continually protrude to temporarily rule as the largest in the world.

And over these decades, it’s certain design and management philosophies that have kept the two separate. The fundamental difference lies in the way these philosophies bring pilots to fly these planes.

Historically, Boeing has been known to embrace pilot control over fully automated systems, while Airbus, its French-based but pan-European rival, has pioneered this technology. Both viewed their strategy as fundamental to security, resulting in similar security records.

But now a new automated system that helped bring down two of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, and pilots’ claims that the company didn’t tell them about the system, have caused the biggest crisis in the manufacturer’s history. . He bleeds cash and tries to appease angry airlines and lawmakers, who could use the crashes to forever change aviation rules.

When an automated system broke down, killing 346 people on two planes, the pilots challenged the philosophy of Boeing.

When the first Boeing 737 Max crashed in Indonesia in October 2018, killing all 189 people on board, the pilots were worried.

Lion air

Families of victims of Lion Air flight JT 610, visit an operations center to search for personal items of their loved ones in October 2018.

Ulet Ifansasti / Getty Images

They saw preliminary reports and information from the investigation that noted that a new automated system in Max planes had failed, leaving the pilots on board panicked and unable to take control of the aircraft.

In the United States, pilots of the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents American Airlines pilots, have expressed their anger to Boeing executives, saying that they had no idea that the automated system was in the planes they flew.

One pilot said, “I think it would be a priority to explain things that could kill you. “

The purpose of the technology – called the Maneuvering Enhancement System, or MCAS – was, of course, not to kill pilots.

The system was designed to help keep the 737 Max in the air and prevent the nose of the aircraft from pointing upward, which could cause the engine to lock up. It was installed because the 737 Max had newer and heavier engines than previous 737 models, which could be causing the problem.

Boeing 737 Max 2

Employees walk at the end of a 737 Max at the Boeing factory in Renton, Washington, United States, in March 2019.

/ Photo taken on November 10, 2018 / REUTERS / Lindsey Wasson

Boeing then assured that a second crash would not occur, showed the audio of the meeting, and said it did not want to “overload the crews with unnecessary information” on the plane.

But then, five months later, a second 737 Max plane crashed in Ethiopia, killing the 157 people on board.

Separate investigations into the two accidents revealed that the malfunctions in MCAS meant that the pilots simply could not control the aircraft, the final report on the Lion Air accident revealing that the pilots had attempted more than 20 times to stop the nose of the downward pointing airplane before it crashed into the sea at 450 mph (724.2 km / h).

The results brought representatives of pilots and cabin crew to Congress, where they told lawmakers that Boeing’s failure to give pilots enough information about the MCAS system was the company’s “last fatal error”.

Boeing 737 Max

The family members of those who died on an Ethiopian Airlines plane sit with photos of their loved ones during a hearing of the Senate Trade Commission in October 2019, while the CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, testified to the accidents.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

The hearings prompted flight crews to say that they no longer wanted to fly on the plane, even when it returned to the skies after approval of its updates by global aviation regulators.

The irony is that Boeing’s philosophy was to put the pilot in charge

In addition to the broader questions about automation in the industry that MCAS raised, a cruel irony appeared in the aftermath of the accidents: Boeing was known as the planner who avoided very powerful automated systems and trusted the skills of pilots .

Airbus Boeing

An Airbus A350-1000 and a Boeing sign at the 2019 Paris Air Show.

/ Photo taken on November 10, 2018 / REUTERS / Pascal Rossignol

Najmedin Meshkati, a professor of engineering at the University of Southern California studying the role of humans in aviation safety, described companies as having traditionally had “two design philosophies”.

“The level of control they give the pilot and the transparency – they are totally different. That’s why I was unpleasantly surprised when the crash happened. I thought Boeing had even violated its own praise and design philosophy. “

boeing 737 max ethiopian airlines

An Ethiopian police officer walks past the wreckage of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash in March 2019.

/ Photo taken on November 26, 2018 / REUTERS / Baz Ratner

And Christine Negroni, aviation safety specialist and author of “The Crash Detectives”, a book on air disasters, said “the great irony is that it was Boeing who held back and had this idea that” we feel the human at the controls. is the best way to do it. This is our philosophy. ”

Boeing has embraced automation for years, but the MCAS system appears to have been a fundamental break in its philosophy

To say that Boeing did not embrace automation would be deeply misleading. The company has used it throughout its fleet for decades. The two aircraft manufacturers have similar safety histories and aviation has not become safer since the introduction of new technologies.

But experts say the main difference is this idea of ​​communicating with pilots, as well as how pilots have long wanted to control things.

Now, they say, MCAS appears to have completely reversed this commitment.

Cockpit of the Boeing 737 Max

The cockpit of a 737 Max aircraft.

Associated press

Alan Diehl, former investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board and the United States’ FAA, told Business Insider: “I think the pilots were naturally so upset with Boeing because historically Boeing has insisted that they maintain the pilots in the loop. “

Pilots and aviation industry experts describe the fundamental difference between Boeing and Airbus as a matter of pilot control.

“Boeing has always wanted to keep pilots more informed,” said Diehl.

“I think a lot of pilots felt that they had been betrayed by Boeing when they discovered MCAS because they didn’t really know what the function consisted of, how it worked, and especially how to close it or when close it. “

In fact, with the Max, Boeing maintains that the pilots were able to bypass the automatic actions and deactivate the MCAS with manual switches. But pilots say they weren’t aware of the system itself, no matter how you turn it off.

Diehl noted that “automation has crept into Boeing products” over time. He described MCAS as “a new level of, I don’t mean misinformation, but lack of information. “

“It was almost a complete breakdown of information,” he said.

Chris Clearfield, founder of risk management consultancy System Logic, licensed pilot and co-author of “Meltdown”, a book on disaster management, noted that “Airbus and Boeing aircraft both have incredible automation. “

“Both are really fundamentally highly automated devices. I think the difference is that Boeing’s design philosophy has always been that pilots have direct access to flight controls. Airbus has always put a lot of filtering in between. “

Boeing 737 Max

Undelivered Boeing 737 Max cars are lazily parked on a Boeing property in Seattle, Washington on August 13, 2019.

David Ryder / Getty Images

Mark Goodrich, an aviation lawyer and former aeronautical engineer and test pilot who focuses on automation, said that the philosophies of Boeing and Airbus had come together long before MCAS.

“The philosophies were radically different. But they are no longer. And they united. Boeing has taken a very traditional approach for a long time, “he said.

In comparison, Airbus is known to be all-in-one with automation

The Airbus A320 aircraft, unveiled in the 1980s, was the first aircraft to have two highly influential technologies – called theft protection and flight envelope – still used to automate parts of the flight.

Fly-by-wire – a system that allows pilots to enter aircraft commands into a computer instead of using mechanical levers or dials – and flight envelope protection, which prevents pilots from pushing aircraft beyond certain control limits, have now become more or less standard in the industry.

But Michel Guerard, vice president of Airbus for product safety, told Business Insider that when Airbus presented them “you had people who didn’t like it.”

“There was an argument over this at the start,” he said.

FILE PHOTO: An Airbus assembly plant in Seville, southern Spain, February 21, 2020. REUTERS / Marcelo del Pozo / File Photo

An Airbus assembly plant in Seville, in the south of Spain.

Reuters

But now versions of theft protection and the flight envelope can be found on Boeing planes, and Guerard said that most planes now, including those of Boeing and Airbus, “have little almost the same appearance in terms of automation. “

What people think of the difference between Airbus and Boeing, then, comes from these early approaches, said Guerard.

“The story that our philosophy is different from that of Boeing,” he said, “comes from the time we had the A320, which was the first aircraft protected by flight and wire. “

But even if Boeing has adopted certain automated systems, it still retains more than Airbus.

Cable flying on Boeing aircraft still has physical levers and gives the pilot feedback that resembles older manual controls.

And when it comes to protecting the flight envelope, for example, Boeing pilots can “push the envelope” – bringing the plane beyond these limits with great effort.

Guerard describes the envelope system as being born from the idea that there is a range of commands and actions that are safe to do during a flight, and a range of commands and actions that are not.

Airbus factory

A worker mounts a part on a wing of a partially completed A320 series passenger aircraft in an assembly hall of the Airbus factory July 14, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

Sean Gallup / Getty Images

Pilots have control within these limits, but cannot completely override the authority of the aircraft to exceed them, as there is apparently no sure reason to do so: “The crew is not authorized to crash the plane, basically. “

Both approaches have fans and detractors in the industry, and both have been known to have saved lives and contributed to accidents.

John Lauber, former chief of product safety at Airbus, told Business Insider that much of the criticism of automated technology on airplanes was “nonsense” and that Airbus data shows that “every Next generation of aircraft is safer than its predecessors’ because of it.

But, he said, automation poses its own security challenges if it is not designed and implemented properly, or if pilots are not properly trained. “But the safety record clearly shows that well done cockpit automation greatly improves the safety of aircraft operations, “he said.

The 737 Max crisis allowed Airbus to regain the title of the world’s largest aircraft manufacturer. But the boost to Airbus has been minimal thanks to the nature of the nature of the industry, where planes are ordered years in advance.

Boeing is repairing the Max, but whatever it does now could prove that its philosophy has changed for good.

Boeing has spent months working on updates to the MCAS system, so it will take information from multiple aircraft sensors and will only be able to activate once during the flight. Boeing also reversed its position after long arguing that simulator training was not necessary for pilots.

Updates mean giving pilots more control, changing the MCAS so that it “never provides more data than the pilot can counterbalance using the single control column.” Boeing says it will be one of the safest planes of all time.

Boeing 737 Max Ethiopian Airlines

Investigators watch debris from Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max plane crashed in March 2019.

Countess of Jemal / Getty Images

Boeing is also thinking more broadly about the way it builds planes, creating a committee to review its design and development, including reviewing the way the company designs cockpits and expects pilots to interact with the controls.

Peter Pedraza, a Boeing spokesman, said that this had resulted in “immediate action” to enhance safety.

But the fallout from Max’s crashes could ultimately be overshadowed by a new crisis for Boeing, as countries around the world lock their borders and the demand for travel dives due to the coronavirus, threatening airlines and bringing them in potentially cancel orders or stop placing new ones.

The virus, combined with its existing Max problems, has already prompted Boeing to offer voluntary layoffs to employees and to note that it is in “unknown waters”.

Dave Calhoun

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun at a White House ceremony in January 2020.

MANDEL NGAN / AFP via Getty Images

Boeing could also take this moment as the basis for turning to automation more than ever.

In November, while still president of the company, Dave Calhoun, the new CEO of Boeing, said, “Ultimately we will almost – almost – fly these planes on their own. “

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