The release of the Ethiopian Airlines preliminary crash report on Thursday revealed problems with an automated system known as MCAS. These symptoms were similar to those reported in the Lion Air crash in October, which also involved a Boeing 737 Max 8 jet.
“Airlines are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed but rather computer scientists from MIT,” ricocheted bombastic US President Donald Trump, a day after the tragic crash of Nairobi-bound Ethiopian Airlines six minutes after it left Addis Ababa.
“I see it all the time with many products. Always seeking to go one step further, when often old and simpler is far better.”
Boeing, the American manufacturer drawing Trump’s ire, meant this was an unusual refrain for a president who usually leaves no stone unturned to safeguard the interests of domestic companies.
In fact, aligning with Trump’s views, much of the world has since asked uncomfortable questions of the multi-billion dollar company who’ve seen two of their Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft fatally crash in almost as many months.
African aviation, including Ethiopian Airlines, has escaped most of the reputational damage.
Since the crash which left 157 people from 35 nations dead, Max 8’s have been grounded the world over.
While Boeing was given the benefit of the doubt during the Lion Air crash in Indonesia – the first Max 8 to malfunction – aviation authorities deemed a second catastrophe too much to ignore.
The release of the black box analysis on Thursday reveals stark similarities between the two accidents, both caused by automated anti-stalling software which is triggered solely by the aircraft’s aerial positioning – without regard to the pilots.
The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), as it is called, automatically pushes an aircraft’s tail up and nose down if the craft begins tilting upward which signals it may be about to stall.
It was introduced to help 737 pilots adapt to the aerodynamic lift of the Max 8 which have much larger engines placed farther forward.
Yet black box data from Lion Air revealed a faulty sensor on the nose of the aircraft which incorrectly sent signals to the MCAS that the plane was stalling.
What resulted was the craft having its nose pushed down no less than 21 times as the doomed pilots wrestled with the controls to pull it back up.
While the faulty sensor continued to convey bogus information, the plane plummeted into the Java Sea only 13 minutes after takeoff.
Initial reports from the latest crash reveal Ethiopian’s tail was found in an unusual position leading many to believe both crashes were caused by these faulty sensors.
Boeing in spotlight
The Ethiopian Airlines crash wiped almost $29bn off Boeing’s market valuation – falling from nearly $240bn to $210bn.
“It’s a heck of a reputational blow,” says Richard Aboulafia, Vice President, Analysis, Teal Group Corp.
Indeed, the 737 Max is a crucial venture for Boeing as their latest plane with around 4,700 aircraft already on order from various airlines worldwide.
For that reason, the company both initially protested against the planes being grounded and allegations have been made that errors were committed during the manufacturing and marketing phase which prioritised commerce over safety.
Both Boeing and the US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), held firm that the Max 8 was air worthy even after the Ethiopian crash.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg reportedly telephoned Trump urging him not to ground the planes.
Just hours before the president did, the FAA had issued several statements of confidence in the 737 Max, saying the organisation had not yet been provided with data to draw any conclusions or take action.
This sheds light on how Boeing’s dominance within the American market may yet have negative consequences for the rest of the world as the regulator operates in close harmony with the company and therefore loses its power of scrutiny.
According to reporting by the Seattle Times the FAA delegated part of routine safety checks to Boeing itself – continuing a growing trend of yielding authority to the manufacturer citing lack of funding and resources.
The article explains how conversations with FAA experts revealed that Boeing then applied pressure to speedily certify its 737 Max as it aimed to keep up with its French competitor Airbus.
Of equal concern, Boeing deemed it unnecessary to provide additional training for 737 pilots in order to fly the MCAS-tweaked Max 8.
In fact, the pilots were not even informed about the added software.
This was a key selling point for the manufacturer, as it marketed a product which didn’t require airlines to spend on retraining their pilots.
The overwhelming amount of scrutiny heaped on Boeing has largely shielded Africa from what could have been enormously damaging.
In the absence of a robust explanation, it is likely the safety of Ethiopian Airlines would have been called into question regardless of the carrier’s record.
As the continent struggles to account for 3% of the world’s airline traffic and its homegrown carriers fight to rid themselves of billions in debt, a blow to the continent’s most decorated airline would serve to rebuff the hard-won gains of a slowly growing market.
However, as very few African carriers including Ethiopian Airlines are publicly listed companies it remains hard to asses the true commercial damage of the crash.
As a rough measure, shares from both Kenya Airways and Air Mauritius – the continent’s only two tradable carriers – were unaffected by the disaster.
Yet overall perceptions of Africa’s aerial safety, especially within the East African region, may suffer in the short term which could negatively impact on tourism: a crucial sector for many African countries.
Speaking to African Business in Nairobi, a spokesperson for the African Airlines Association (AFRAA) communicated the following: “Safety standards in Africa have significantly improved in the past few years.
“Airlines in Africa had zero jet hull losses and zero fatal accidents involving jets for a third consecutive year in 2018.
“The sharply improved safety standards in Africa shows that the various efforts by AFRAA, civil aviation authorities, airports, governments and other stakeholders to enhance a safety culture is yielding positive results.”