The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted the ban on the deadly Boeing 737 MAX this week making it the first regulator worldwide to do so. The aircraft has been grounded for 20 months since the second of two deadly crashes occurred in March 2019. Although it was the first regulator to lift the ban, the FAA was one of the last global regulators to ground the MAX, despite the knowledge that the aircraft was dangerously designed. The agency and Boeing have since been heavily scrutinized for placing the defective aircraft into commercial service. Now, with little more than software changes and a series of staged publicity stunts, it appears they have learned little from the tragedies.
In truth, the MAX remains flawed because of its aerodynamic design. Regardless of the changes prescribed by Boeing and rubber-stamped by the FAA, nothing short of a full redesign can truly improve the aircraft’s safety.
As the MAX saga has unfolded, the public learned that in order to compensate for its inherent instability and poor flight characteristics, the MAX must rely on a properly functioning maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), the new flight control system. However, a defect in the MCAS caused the aircraft to malfunction and repeatedly push the nose down unnecessarily in the two deadly flights. Pilots fought hard to recover both flights but couldn’t overcome the MCAS that was determined to force the planes down.
Even though Boeing was aware of the MCAS and its defects, Boeing publicly denied problems with the aircraft and instead blamed “foreign” pilots and pilot errors for the two MAX crashes. Even as Boeing tried to blame the pilots, the planemaker acknowledged to Congress and in public reporting that the existence of the flawed MCAS was hidden from airlines and pilots so they were unaware of the system and how it could take over control of the aircraft. As information slowly trickled out to the public, we also learned that the design of the MCAS only utilized data from one angle of attack sensor (AOA) – a departure from applications on other aircraft that use two AOA sensors and a complete disregard for the danger that results from such a single-point failure.
The results of several investigations, including a recently released congressional investigation report, also exposed the incestuous relationship between the FAA and aircraft manufacturers. It is in this context that the FAA’s current aircraft certification process has evolved into one in which manufacturers like Boeing “self-certify” the quality and safety of their own products. It is this same “fox guarding the henhouse” or “rubber-stamp” process that approved the defective 737 MAX in the first place.
In August, the FAA began setting the stage for re-certifying the Max when it released its airworthiness directive, which defined the steps necessary for the MAX to resume commercial service. Since then, Boeing and the FAA orchestrated a series of publicity stunts using carefully prepared and upgraded aircraft in a strategically choreographed flight path as a way to try to show that the recent MCAS and flight control changes have remedied all the MAX defects. In September, FAA head Stephen Dickson expressed his satisfaction with the changes after test flying an updated MAX, all but sealing the deal that the FAA would lift the ban on the MAX.
Our clients and other families who lost loved ones on the two doomed MAX flights have begged the FAA to prioritize consumer safety over Boeing’s bottom line. Their goal is to hold Boeing and others accountable for reckless disregard for the safety of their passengers and to try to prevent other families from suffering the same tragedy. Even with its “upgrades,” the 737 Max remains a fundamentally flawed and inherently unstable aircraft. Unless and until the approval and oversight process is taken away from Boeing control and performed by an independent FAA, we can, unfortunately, expect more of the same.
Mike Andrews focuses much of his practice on aviation litigation. In addition to his Ethiopian Airlines crash clients, Mike has represented people seriously injured in a variety of aviation crashes, and the families of those killed in both civilian and military airplane crashes and helicopter crashes.