If Boeing was hoping for veteran pilots to help it recover from its tailspin, it was wrong.
In addressing a congressional committee, retired Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who famously landed his damaged plane on the Hudson River, described the automated flight control system on the Boeing 737 Max as “fatally flawed.” He added that the system should never have been approved.
The statement is a searing condemnation of Boeing and federal approval procedures that allowed the plane’s production and sale to go forward.
Sullenberger is a particularly potent messenger for this criticism, as the public remembers him for his heroics in the cockpit—and he has pushed back on the idea that U.S. pilots could have corrected a software-induced nosedive.
Sullenberger, who safely landed a damaged US Airways jet on the Hudson River in New York in 2009 after a bird strike disabled the engines, says he understands how the pilots of two 737 Max planes that recently crashed would have been confused as they struggled to maintain control of the aircraft, as an automated system erroneously began forcing the planes into nosedives.
“I can tell you firsthand that the startle factor is real and it’s huge. It absolutely interferes with one’s ability to quickly analyze the crisis and take corrective action,” he said.
Pilots now say there is distrust toward the aircraft manufacturer.
Daniel Carey, president of the Allied Pilots Association, which represents pilots at American Airlines, noted Boeing’s strong safety record generally, but he criticized the aerospace giant for making “many mistakes” in order to reduce costs, while still developing the Max plane so that it would feel as much like the previous version of the 737.
… “A huge error of omission was the fact that Boeing failed to disclose the existence of the MCAS system to the pilot community around the world,” Carey said. “The final fatal mistake was therefore the absence of robust pilot training in the event of an MCAS failure.”
Carey says Boeing’s failures have created a “crisis of trust” between the airplane-maker and pilots.
Both Carey and Sullenberger said Boeing would have to invest more resources in pilot training and simulators to head off similar crashes.
“We should all want pilots to experience these challenging situations for the first time in a simulator, not in flight with passengers and crew on board,” Sullenberger told lawmakers, adding that “reading about it on an iPad is not even close to sufficient. Pilots must experience it physically, firsthand.”
But there are few 737 Max simulators in existence, and providing such training for thousands of pilots around the world would be costly and logistically problematic.
He and Carey dismissed suggestions that the crashes could not have happened in the U.S., where pilots are required to have a lot of experience and more rigorous training before flying commercial airliners.
“Some (U.S.) crews would have recognized it in time to recover, but some would not have,” Carey testified. Sullenberger agreed, saying it’s unlikely that more experienced pilots would have had different outcomes, adding, “we shouldn’t have to expect pilots to compensate for flawed designs.”
Boeing’s response to these latest criticisms has been muted and limited to acknowledging its struggle to regain stakeholders’ trust.
No one from Boeing Co. testified at Wednesday’s hearing. Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat and chairman of the full House Transportation Committee, said his panel has received “a substantial number” of the documents it has requested from Boeing and the FAA about development and approval of the Max, and he will summon the company to a future hearing.
In a statement, Boeing spokesman Peter Pedraza said Boeing was providing information to regulators, airlines and pilots “to re-earn their trust and know we must be more transparent going forward.”
Boeing’s path to regaining trust still looks bumpy. Jon Weaks, president of the pilots’ union at Southwest — which owns 34 Max jets, more than any other carrier, and is the world’s biggest 737 operator — faulted Boeing for many missteps during the crisis.
“Boeing seems to receive more bad news with every passing week and still needs to learn how to rebuild trust as well as the airplane,” Weaks wrote in a memo to his pilots on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, passengers report that even when the aircraft is released with updated software and authorities say the plane is safe to fly, they won’t feel comfortable riding in it.
When the Boeing 737 Max aircraft returns to the skies, many passengers will seek to avoid it: that is the conclusion from an online survey in which 55 per cent said they would not be happy to fly on it.
Only 23 per cent of the 1,378 self-selecting respondents in the Twitter poll said they would be confident in flying on the troubled jet once it is given the all-clear.
Almost the same number – 22 per cent – indicated that they would wait to see the nature of the fix before deciding.
Some in the industry are opting for the competition: Airbus.
Since Airbus announced plans for the plane on Monday, the company has racked up eight orders for more than 160 XLRs. Air Lease Corporation, which leases hundreds of airplanes to airlines around the world, placed the initial order for 27 XLRs. Air Lease CEO John Plueger told CNBC the plane is “a blockbuster.”
American is the first U.S.-based airline to order the newest Airbus plane, but Denver-based Frontier Airlines will also be flying the XLR shortly after deliveries begin in 2023. Frontier’s parent company, private equity firm, Indigo Partners placed an order for 50 XLR planes, with initial plans to put 18 of them into Frontier’s fleet, and the others in its stable of discount carriers in Latin America and Europe.
“It costs a little bit more for these aircraft … (but they offer)… greater utility for us in the long run,” American Airlines President Robert Isom said on a podcast, highlighting opportunities for new routes, higher efficiency and less complexity among its fleet.
Airbus also said it had reached a preliminary deal to sell 11 A321neos to Taiwan’s China Airlines, snatching the renewal of the airline’s medium-haul fleet from Boeing.
How would you advise Boeing to recapture pilots’ trust—and then communicate that message to wary consumers?