At Boeing’s Renton factory on the shores of Lake Washington 737 Max aircraft are building up. It is here where the US aerospace group assembles its best-selling jets before shipping them to airline customers around the world.
The parked planes are a tangible sign of the crisis that has engulfed Boeing since the global grounding of the Max in the wake of a deadly crash in Ethiopia last month that killed all 157 people on board.
Ethiopian investigators on Thursday confirmed that a faulty sensor triggered a new anti-stall software system on the Max that was already implicated in a deadly Lion Air accident in Indonesia last year.
Ethiopia’s Transport Minister had earlier said that the pilots of Flight 302 “repeatedly” followed the emergency procedure stipulated by Boeing to turn off the system but were unable to recover control of the jet. Boeing, the minister added, should review the system before allowing the jets to fly again.
The findings raise questions about Boeing’s advice to pilots after the Lion Air crash and will intensify pressure on the manufacturer to fix the problem. The company has lost some $20bn in market value since the crash and suffered a huge dent to its reputation.
Although Boeing has continued to produce the jets at a rate of 52 a month, it remains uncertain whether the group will be able to maintain that rate, let alone ramp up output as previously planned.
Captain Jason Goldberg, spokesperson for the pilots union of American Airlines, one of the biggest US carriers that fly the Max, said the Ethiopian report “raises additional concerns” given the fact that pilots around the world were told by Boeing and the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that “all that would have to happen for this to have a good outcome is for pilots to follow a Boeing procedure”.
“But apparently what we see from the Ethiopian investigation is that the Ethiopian pilots did perform that checklist (procedure) and it was insufficient to overcome [the automated system],” he told the Financial Times.
The tragedy has triggered a crisis of confidence in Boeing and the FAA, which became the last safety regulator to ground the planes.
The majority of airline customers have so far stuck with the plane — Boeing has about 5,000 orders on its books — although Indonesia’s Garuda said last month it would cancel its order for 49 jets.
Shares in Boeing rose 2.8 per cent to $395 a share on Thursday in early trading in New York as the report appeared to confirm the problem was isolated to the anti-stall system, called manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system or MCAS.
Analysts, however, said they expect Boeing to have to abandon its plans to boost production of the 737 Max to 57 per month later this year, because of the delay in implementing the software fix.
Cai von Rumohr, aerospace analyst at Cowen Research, said: “At a minimum, we think this is likely to delay a proposed lift in the 737 rate to 57 per month, which was slated to occur a bit after midyear.” Some analysts think the current 52 per month production rate could also be at risk.
The key question for Boeing and its customers is when the planes will be back in the air.
Boeing was working on a software fix for MCAS in the wake of the Lion Air crash. The FAA on Monday said Boeing needed to do “additional work” and that it expected to receive a final version of the fix in the coming weeks, pushing back an earlier date of the end of March.
Boeing has identified a number of changes, including that MCAS will no longer trigger based on one potentially faulty sensor and it will only activate once and not repeatedly, as happened on the Lion Air crash.
Boeing on Thursday in response to the report reiterated that the proposed update “adds additional layers of protection and will prevent erroneous data from causing MCAS activation”.
“Flight crews will always have the ability to override MCAS and manually control the airplane,” the company added.
But aviation experts on Thursday said critical questions remain about the system, especially in light of the news that the Ethiopian crew followed the correct procedures to switch it off.
Andrew Blackie, a former British air accident investigator and qualified commercial pilot who now trains inspectors through his consultancy Abris, said following the Lion Air crash MCAS was “presented as a simple system with easily identified failure characteristics and a relatively easy recovery action for the crew”.
However, after the Ethiopian crash and Thursday’s revelation that the pilots followed Boeing’s procedure, “the interaction of the aircraft, the crew and the MCAS has been unpredictable”.
“It now appears to be a much more complex problem, one where understanding the individual components does not explain the behaviour of the whole system,” he said.h2">
Bjorn Fehrm, a former Swedish fighter pilot and an aeronautical engineer, who is now an analyst with consultancy Leeham News, is critical of Boeing and the FAA.
“The fix will be fine but the damning thing for Boeing and the FAA is that the instructions [in the emergency airworthiness directive] post the Lion Air crash were not good enough.” At high air speeds, as was the case in the Ethiopian flight, the steps were not good enough, he added.
“The whole discussion around the fact that pilots can’t manually trim the aircraft over certain speeds now has to be unravelled. I think this will delay the return of the aircraft.”
Jim Corridore, aerospace analyst at CFRA Research, sounded a more positive note, arguing that “over the longer term Boeing will get the software fix right and restore confidence in the safety of its aircraft”.
Nevertheless, the company will eventually be found to share “at least some culpability” in the two crashes, he said, adding that legal liabilities could be “in the billions of dollars”.
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Source : https://www.ft.com/content/25b7a846-56f7-11e9-a3db-1fe89bedc16e1311