Southwest Airlines faces a class action lawsuit alleging the commercial carrier pressured Boeing into deceiving Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulators during the 737 MAX testing and certification process. It was in an apparent effort to avoid pilot training costs.
The Texas class action lawsuit claims that Southwest presented the odd and potentially criminal proposal to Boeing in April 2016, a year before the 737 MAX received its FAA certification. Legal filings say that a Southwest executive urged Boeing to install a new flight safety control required for the 737 MAX on one of Southwest’s older 737s, then deactivate it once the FAA certified the MAX.
According to the class action, Southwest would have made this request only so Boeing could tell the FAA that the safety control alert was nothing new on the MAX. This would keep the FAA from requiring new training for pilots already certified to fly the older 737 NG.
The court documents also reveal that Southwest demanded a clause in its 737 MAX sales contract insisting Boeing pay a penalty of $1 million per airplane delivered if the new aircraft required more than the minimal pilot training.
At the time, Southwest was in line as Boeing’s biggest purchaser of the 737 MAX. Its demands carried substantial weight. Boeing did not honor Southwest’s plea to retrofit the 737 MAX safety alerts to an older Southwest 737. Still, the carrier’s involvement in the certification process urged Boeing to trim down pilot training to nothing but a three-hour iPad course.
Boeing also removed any mention of the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) from 737 MAX training materials. It added this new component to the 737 MAX to counter potential flight problems associated with the new aircraft’s design. It was essentially a recycled version of the original 737 model but with bigger engines.
The original 737 was designed in 1967 and built low to the ground. The lower stance allowed baggage handlers easy access to the plane’s cargo area and enabled passengers and crew to board using portable stairways. To compete with the timeline of competitor Airbus’s new aircraft, Boeing rushed to install larger and more efficient engines on these low-to-the-ground aircraft. It accomplished this by moving the engines forward and higher on the 737 MAX and altering the profile of the leading edge of the wings.
These changes, however, dramatically changed the 737’s flight traits, causing the plane’s nose to pitch upward in flight. If not countered, the upward pitch would cause the aircraft to lose forward airspeed – a precursor to a stall and potential crash.
It’s clear now that Boeing should have rebuilt the 737 with a better airframe – one with a higher stance adjusted for the larger engines. Instead, Boeing engineers added the MCAS to automatically offset the plane’s problematic “maneuvering characteristics.” Having erased all mention of the MCAS from training materials, Boeing left 737 MAX pilots entirely unaware of this secret control and unprepared to take proper action when it adjusted the plane’s pitch.
The hidden MCAS system played a major role in the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airline Flight 302 five months later. Pilots in both cases reacted to the sudden downward movement of the aircraft by pulling up on the flight controls. Falsely sensing another nose-up problem, the MCAS pushed the airplane’s nose down again, creating a tug-of-war that caused the planes to lose attitude and airspeed until they crashed.
Boeing’s 737 MAX safety defects and Southwest Airlines’ ability to coerce the manufacturer occurred in a larger flawed oversight system. Such a flawed system allowed aircraft manufacturers to self-regulate and self-certify while escaping FAA scrutiny.
Before the deadly 737 MAX crashes occurred, federal officials questioned the FAA’s ability to properly regulate the airline industry for safety. Government inquiries into the relationship between the FAA and corporate America found an overlap of leadership among the FAA’s upper ranks with aerospace lobbyists. Deep FAA deregulation and budget cuts under the Trump Administration further compromised air safety in later years.
Mike Andrews, a lawyer in Beasley Allen’s Personal Injury & Products Liability Section, handles much of our aviation litigation and has represented some of the families of 737 MAX crash victims. He said the Texas class action suit, filed in March, brings to light the inner workings among government officials and private businesses that have led to so much human tragedy. Mike said:
Boeing’s willingness to accommodate the airline industry’s demands and influence federal safety regulations directly led to human suffering on an immense scale. The 737 MAX crashes would not have happened had Boeing prioritized safety instead of profits when it designed its new aircraft, and many people, including our clients, would be alive today.
On May 23, Boeing officials announced what they said would be a top-to-bottom overhaul of its structure and safety culture. They said the plan will rely heavily on analytical data from commercial airlines, suppliers, and Boeing’s factories to pinpoint areas of potential safety risk. This data has not been collected, analyzed, or applied to aircraft design. Boeing officials said this approach includes mechanical fixes to aircraft designed and produced under its previous leadership, such as the 787 Dreamliner. For now, the company has stopped delivering the long-haul jets until it repairs manufacturing errors that created small gaps between the aircraft’s structural parts.
Boeing encourages employees with safety concerns to speak out without fear of the retaliation that company whistleblowers have suffered in the past. Another part of the company’s cultural overhaul includes instituting “never forget” displays in the lobby of its new Safety Promotion Center building. The displays highlight deadly Boeing air crashes that have occurred throughout the company’s history. Boeing intends for the displays to remind all its employees of the weight of their professional responsibilities while looking forward to a safer future.