Boeing Moves A Step Closer To Resolving 737 Max Problems

May 17, 2019
Originally published on May 18, 2019 11:03 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Boeing says it's one step closer to resolving problems with its 737 MAX planes. The company says it's now finished developing a software fix for the jets. But as NPR's David Schaper reports, it still may be months before the airplanes are cleared to fly again.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Aviation authorities around the world grounded the 737 MAX two months ago after the second of two crashes that investigators linked to Boeing's automated flight control system on the planes. The crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed a total of 346 people. In both cases, a faulty sensor caused the system to repeatedly force the planes into nosedives as the pilots tried to regain control.

Boeing has been working on a software fix for the system since the first crash last fall. Yesterday, the company released a statement saying the software upgrade has been completed.

CLINT BALOG: This is the first step.

SCHAPER: Clint Balog is a professor of aeronautics at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

BALOG: Boeing is following the right path. They're doing the right things to make this system better.

SCHAPER: One fix is that the system will now rely on data from two sensors instead of just one.

BALOG: That alone would have prevented either of these accidents from occurring.

SCHAPER: The changes will also make the system repeat the nose-down action less often and less forcefully, making it easier for the pilots to take back control. Boeing's statement indicates the upgraded software has undergone extensive testing, including more than 200 test flights over 360 hours. Clint Balog says that's a lot for software.

BALOG: I think that's very indicative of how seriously Boeing is taking this situation and that they are determined to get this fixed right the first time.

SCHAPER: Of course, Boeing has been under enormous pressure since the crashes. Pilots complained they were never even told about the new flight control system until after the Indonesia crash. Whistleblowers accused Boeing of rushing the development of the MAX, cutting corners along the way, while safety advocates say the FAA didn't provide proper oversight in certifying the plane.

The FAA says the company still has not formally submitted the software fix for review. When it does, acting FAA administrator Daniel Elwell told lawmakers in a hearing on Capitol Hill this week what will happen next.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DANIEL ELWELL: We'll do test flights. We will do a thorough and robust safety analysis. We will determine - based on the software fix they give us, we'll determine what level of training will be required of 737 MAX pilots.

SCHAPER: The bottom line, says Elwell, is this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ELWELL: We will not allow the 737 MAX to fly in the U.S. until it is absolutely safe to do so. And we will use every tool, every data-gathering capability we have to ensure that's the case.

SCHAPER: The review of the 737 MAX could take months. And regulators in other countries will have to sign off too. Airlines have canceled hundreds of flights as they've had to remove MAX planes from their schedules for much of the busy summer travel season.

David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.