In the wake of a disaster, Boeing is on defense as a group of pilots claims the company failed to impart essential safety information about a new jet feature.
The scrutiny comes after Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the ocean, killing 189. Investigators are trying to learn whether a safety mechanism—a feature in the updated 737 Max aircraft—that is supposed to automatically bring a plane out of a stall malfunctioned and instead sent the plane nose-down to its demise.
Reports suggest the feature could take over control of the plane even during manual operation by the pilots.
As was first reported by The Wall Street Journal, the Allied Pilots Association alleges Boeing failed to disclose information about the new stall-prevention technology, compromising the safe operation of the aircraft.
The Allied Pilots Association rejected Boeing’s assertion that a safety bulletin issued last week was meant to reinforce procedures already in the 737 MAX flight manual.
“They (Boeing) didn’t provide us all the info we rely on when we fly an aircraft,” said Captain Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the group. “The bulletin is not re-affirming, it’s enlightening and adding new info.”
The manual did not tell pilots that, when the plane’s computer detects the aircraft is in a stall, it automatically triggers a response, such as lowering the airpane’s nose, to prevent or exit the stall.
That is critical information for pilots, which the association says was never communicated to them.
The Allied Pilots Association says while there are no immediate safety concerns about the Boeing 737 MAX “the fact that this hasn’t been told to pilots before calls into question what other info should we know about this aircraft.”
Boeing responded to the pilots’ concerns in a statement.
In a statement following the WSJ report, Boeing said: “We are taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this incident, working closely with the investigating team and all regulatory authorities involved.”
“We are confident in the safety of the 737 MAX. Safety remains our top priority and is a core value for everyone at Boeing,” the company said.
However, some find Boeing’s statement implausible.
“What seems to have happened here is that a new version or a modified anti-stall capacity was added which pushes the nose down automatically. If it’s true, it is beyond comprehension that Boeing did not tell the airline and pilots about this,” said CNN aviation correspondent Richard Quest.
He added that if important information hadn’t been communicated to pilots, it would be a matter for aviation regulators, rather than individual airlines.
In response to questions about the Lion Air crash specifically, Boeing has been more opaque.
Boeing said in a statement that it was assisting in investigations into the crash, but did not directly address questions about why it did not do more to emphasize the changes in the anti-stall system.
“The investigation into Lion Air flight 610 is ongoing and Boeing continues to cooperate fully and provide technical assistance at the request and under the direction of government authorities investigating the accident,” the company said.
Critics point to Boeing’s attempt to limit airlines’ transition costs—and stay competitive—as the reason it failed to impart crucial safety data.
The New York Times continued:
Boeing had told airlines that pilots qualified to fly the earlier version of the plane, the 737NG, would need to do just 16 hours of training on a computer to be ready to fly the new Max version.
Boeing may have found it particularly important to stress the ease of shifting from the older to the newer version of the plane because the rival Airbus A320neo involves fewer updates from its predecessor. What the industry calls commonality between older and newer versions is important to airlines in keeping costs down.
“Boeing definitely marketed it that way — the idea that it’s a straightforward crossover process,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst and vice president of the Teal Group in Washington. He said commonality would have been important to Boeing.
Boeing has acknowledged that the Indonesian Airline had informed the company of inaccurate instrument readings.
Last week, Boeing released a statement acknowledging that Indonesian officials had told it about repeated errant data readings experienced by the plane. Incorrect data readings can set off the automated anti-stall system to force the plane into a nose-dive, even if the plane is not on autopilot.
Stalls are one of the most common causes of airplane crashes. But if pilots did not know exactly what system was in place, or that the data being fed into the system was wrong, their reactions could be fatally muddled, aviation experts said.
Boeing used its online newsroom and social media accounts to share its statements.
Boeing Statement on Operations Manual Bulletin: https://t.co/5e18xbb4uX
— Boeing Airplanes (@BoeingAirplanes) November 7, 2018
We are deeply saddened by the loss of Lion Air Flight JT 610. We express our concern for those on board, and extend heartfelt sympathies to their families and loved ones. STATEMENT: https://t.co/5e18xbb4uX
— Boeing Airplanes (@BoeingAirplanes) October 29, 2018
On Twitter, users asked airlines about the airplane—indicating consumers were rattled by the report:
— Dennis Dean (@DennisDean539) November 13, 2018
Others were incredulous:
So you add a new feature to your airplane that lets the computers take over, even when the autopilot isn’t on. Don’t you think you should tell somebody about that? Say, maybe the pilots? https://t.co/j0ycsWCYq7 https://t.co/cXW53AMeow
— Ken Andrade (@k808a) November 14, 2018
Unconscionable that they could withhold that information. Those involved should be charged with 189 counts of manslaughter. https://t.co/I4lIPmxlUM
— Wayne Pace (@dancingwayne8) November 13, 2018
— Jack Siderer (@JackSiderer) November 13, 2018
How would you advise Boeing to reestablish trust with consumers, PR Daily readers?