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When most people take to the air, they’re probably ignoring the in-flight safety instructions and thinking about how best to run time on the plane. They’re not generally worried about safety. They typically assume that planes are built to fly safely.
But Boeing has come under fire in the past year for planes that have proven that assumption may not be correct.
As investigations continue into the 737 Max crashes, Boeing’s board is expected to release a report and recommendations to prevent a similar problem from happening again. Here’s what you need to know about the incident and proposed changes at Boeing.
First, let’s quickly recap what happened to get us to this point.
On October 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 took off from Jakarta, Indonesia, bound for Pangkal Pinang, which is the largest city in Indonesia’s Banka Belitung Islands.
The plane never made it to Pangkal Pinang—it crashed just 12 minutes after takeoff into the Java Sea, killing all 189 passengers and the plane’s crew.
Roughly five months after that crash, on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 took off from Addis Ababa bound for Nairobi. Just six minutes after takeoff, the plane crashed near the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia. All 157 people on board the plane were killed.
Both planes were Boeing 737 Max 8s, a variation of the bestselling aircraft in the industry. These are the only two recorded accidents connected to the 737 Max series aircraft. More than 300 of the 737 Max passenger jets were grounded worldwide, though the US and the Federal Aviation Administration were slower to act than other countries.
The investigation into both crashes remains ongoing, so there is no final word on what, exactly, went wrong in both flights. However, investigations into both flights are focused on a specific software malfunction.
Preliminary reports from the investigation into Lion Air Flight 610 indicate that the plane may have crashed because a faulty sensor reported that the plane was stalling. This faulty report triggered Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, an automated system which tried to point the plane’s nose down so that it could gain enough speed to fly safely.
MCAS uses two sensors to determine the angle of the plane’s nose relative to oncoming airflow. If MCAS finds that the plane’s nose is pointed dangerously up, it will automatically push down the nose of the plane to prevent it from stalling and falling straight out of the sky.
However, it appears that in these flights, because the faulty sensor continued to indicate that the plane was stalling, MCAS kept the plane’s nose pointing down to create speed, sending both planes into a nosedive. And because MCAS activates without pilot input, pilots are caught off-guard by sudden descents.
Regardless of the exact cause, the investigation has called into question some of the most fundamental assumptions used in certifying aircraft and has challenged Boeing’s ongoing assertion that pilots should be able to manage mechanical failures with ease.
For the past five months, a committee of Boeing’s board has been interviewing employees, safety experts, and other industry executives to try to understand how the company can build safer planes. They are expected to deliver their final findings to the full board this week.
As Boeing’s managerial structure has been partially implicated for the crashes (the 737 Max series had a rushed rollout to beat a similar model from Airbus), recommendations include organizational restructuring to create new groups focused specifically on airplane safety.
One of the report’s major concerns was the reporting structure for engineers. At Boeing, engineers report primarily to business leaders for each plane model, not the chief engineer. If engineers spot problems that could slow a model’s development, they may face pushback from bosses whose jobs revolve around production deadlines, not safe engineering.
The report recommends flipping the reporting structure so that engineers report to the chief engineer first, rather than business leaders.
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