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OPINION

Boeing fix leaves it in a fix

Vijay Verghese, Editor, Smart Travel AsiaQuestions multiply about flight testing for the B737 MAX-8, MCAS software refinements, simulators, whistle-blowers and passenger confidence.

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by Vijay Verghese/ Editor

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Boeing demurs on full responsibility for the B737 MAX-8 crashes

David Muilenburg Boeing CEO says the B737 MAX-8 after the fix will be among the "safest planes ever to fly..."

BOEING says it has a fix for the B737 MAX8 jet that is currently grounded worldwide. This relates to a software fix for the MCAS (Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System), which is believed to have sent two planes into a fatal nosedive. This should be good news for travellers. Is it?

Airlines that are haemorrhaging money with aircraft idling on the ground – and shall have to spend yet more money on advertising and PR to reassure passengers their planes are safe – would be glad to get their birds in the air but not without solid evidence that the patch will work. The risks are too high. Three major Chinese carriers – Air China, China Southern and China Eastern – perhaps prodded by the fractious US-China trade impasse, fired the first salvo demanding compensation for the grounded B737 MAX-8 jets. (Their cost is an estimated US$580m till end June - American Airlines puts its costs at US$350m - though the grounding may well continue beyond August.) Others will follow.

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While bullish about its fix, Boeing has failed to assume any clear responsibility for the crashes. CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who finally appeared on television half a year after the Lion Air crash in an egregiously botched PR exercise, continued to deflect the discussion towards pilot error – a tack the manufacturer has consistently taken.

{It was later revealed that Boeing was unable to even simulate the MCAS nose-down stall-prevention sequence of the doomed aircraft

Shareholders and questioning newsmen were offered waffle about a “chain of events" and "multiple contributing factors,” none of which seemed to involve Boeing. It was a line of argument that incensed the American Airlines pilots' union who described as "inexcusable" Boeing's tin-eared approach even when they suggested fixes right after the Lion Air crash. There have been testy and candid exchanges between pilots and Boeing. One commented, “These guys [the deceased pilots] didn’t even know the damn system [the MCAS] was on the airplane.” He is right. (End May in a CBS interview the Boeing CEO finally apologised to the families of the crash victims.)

Muilenburg's optimism that when recertified the patched B737 MAX-8 aircraft will be among the "safest planes ever to fly," may not be shared by passengers, many of whom opted out even before the US grounding came into force. In early March Southwest allowed spooked passengers to switch planes if they did not wish to fly on a B737 MAX.

A key problem is that the airline is attempting a software patch for what is really a design flaw (like sending a Sumo wrestler to a psychotherapist to convince him he can do ballet). The airframe with its larger engines and the increased fuselage length simply does not gel with flight dynamics. Initial performance was less-than-optimal and this is what necessitated the first fix – the MCAS.

How comfortable are you with your smartphone software updates? The process of catching and neutering bugs is by nature incremental. They first need to be found. If your phone malfunctions you cannot make a call. If a plane malfunctions it can fall from the sky.

The question of aircraft testing is another important area for scrutiny. Boeing is confident the plane is now airworthy. Fight safety is measured in terms of incidents per million flights and the aircraft manufacturer had by early May 2019 flown a little over 100 sorties. In statistical terms this strains to be meaningful.

It was later revealed that Boeing was unable to even simulate the MCAS nose-down stall-prevention sequence of the doomed aircraft. This has necessitated another critical software fix on B737 MAX training simulators. The issue may have been spotted earlier but the aircraft manufacturer did not believe simulator time was necessary. An iPad would suffice. Boeing maintains that post-fix, pilot simulator time will still not be required, potentially saving airlines huge costs for expensive retraining.

As the aircraft awaits flight certification (not from 'FAA and Friends' this time but just the FAA), frequent flyers might ask themselves exactly how much they really know about aircraft and whether they would fly on the MAX-8. How might they react if Boeing was to later rebrand the plane and christen it anew?

In January 2019 Toyota recalled almost 2m vehicles to fix defective 'exploding' Takata airbags. It is far harder to recall a 66,000kg aircraft and how airlines respond to the PR-perception challenge remains to be seen. In an interview with NBC's Lester Holt, Doug Parker, CEO of American Airlines made no bones about the scale of the problems ahead in reassuring the flying public. He remains skeptical about any marketing panacea, and rightly: 'I don't know at this point, given the heightened level of interest in this ... that any amount of marketing would do that [fix negative customer outlook].'

There is no doubt the original B737 is a workhorse that is absolutely safe (though the FAA found recent NG and MAX versions had issues with wing 'slat tracks' that help provide lift). The original aircraft has proven itself. The problem is with the cosmetic and commercial extensions on the MAX-8 that have stretched things beyond the design's capability. The 737 is a ubiquitous piece of equipment. As Muilenburg stated, "On average 2,900 B-737 airplanes are in the air with half a million passengers on-board at any given time." That's half a million reasons to get it right this time – starting with the airframe.

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