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Questions remain after Boeing crashes

(China Daily)    12:24, March 22, 2019

A man checks the wreckage of the airplane of Ethiopian Airlines (ET) which crashed earlier near Bishoftu city, about 45 kms southeast of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, March 10, 2019. (Xinhua)

Manufacturer's relationship with US regulator challenged

Pallbearers carried 17 flag-draped coffins through the streets of Addis Ababa on Sunday to Holy Trinity Cathedral in the Ethiopian capital.

Crowds lined the streets to witness the procession of empty caskets.

Relatives were given bags of scorched earth from the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in place of remains, which may take months to identify.

On March 10, all 157 people aboard the flight perished shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa International Airport. They came from 35 countries.

Nearly two weeks later, the cause of the Boeing 737 Max 8 jetliner crash remains unknown. The disaster followed the crash in October of a Lion Air flight in Indonesia using the same type of plane, in which 189 people died. Both planes maneuvered erratically before crashing.

The crashes led 42 countries and regions to ground Boeing 737 Max jetliners. China was the first country to do so, and the United States was the last major nation to act, issuing its order four days after the crash in Ethiopia.

China, Boeing's largest market for the Max 8, has grounded all 96 of the jets operating in the country. The US is the second-largest market for the aircraft, with 72 of the planes in service, aviation and aerospace website FlightGlobal reported.

The crashes have also raised questions about the MAX 8's anti-stall device, pilot training, the procedure for certifying planes are safe for commercial use, and what some see as the cozy relationship between the US Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing, the world's leading aircraft manufacturer.

Boeing is cooperating with the investigation and is eager to determine the cause of the crashes, a message reinforced by a full-page advertisement in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday signed by Boeing Chairman Dennis Muilenburg. At stake is the company's safety reputation and possibly 4,700 orders for MAX models and nine aircraft on back order-orders that will be sent out when an item is restocked-at about $120 million each.

Flight recorder data recovered from the planes show "clear similarities" between the two crashes, Ethiopian officials said.

Both planes flew erratically after experiencing difficulty with the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, the anti-stall device. An "angle of attack" sensor built into the aircraft measures the amount of lift produced by the wings. The device warns pilots when there is not enough lift, potentially stalling the plane, and then points the nose of the aircraft down to gain speed and remain airborne.

Some analysts believe that the pilots of the Ethiopian and Indonesian flights may not have known how to turn off the anti-stall device after it pointed the nose down, and if so, that may have been a factor in the crashes. The MAX 8, introduced in 2017, has been used by airlines in the US, Canada, Europe and China.

Bloomberg News reported that an off-duty pilot in the cockpit of a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX 8 helped the crew disable the malfunctioning anti-stall system during flight after a frantic review of the plane's handbook offered no solution.

Next day, the same plane with a different crew crashed into the sea near Jakarta, the Indonesian capital. Reuters published a similar story, citing three people with knowledge of the discussion on the cockpit voice recorder of the doomed flight that has not yet been made public.

Analysts fault Boeing for not issuing explicit instructions on how to turn off the anti-stall device.

Bad data suggestion

Pilots said they first learned of potential difficulties with the new system after the Lion Air crash. The FAA then ordered manuals for the 737 MAX to be updated and Boeing issued instructions telling pilots how to override the system. But pilots, who said Boeing was slow to issue the instructions, independently compiled a 13-page guide for the aircraft.

However, there also may be a problem with the software that drives the anti-stall device. Boeing is developing an upgrade. The new software for the aircraft will enable the stall-prevention system to use multiple data feeds rather than relying on the single feed used when the plane was delivered in 2017.

The software and hardware updates follow preliminary results from the Lion Air crash that suggested bad data from a single sensor may have caused the anti-stall system to malfunction.

Boeing said it worked on the new software before the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The company said the software update, expected to be installed by the end of this month, will make an "already safe plane safer."

In the US, the FAA certified the 737 MAX safe, and this raised questions about the relationship between federal regulators and Boeing.

James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the US aircraft industry is moving toward using its own employees to certify aircraft safety, a departure from previous practices at the FAA. The safety board investigates the cause of air, rail and marine accidents, while the FAA operates the US air traffic control system and certifies planes safe to fly.

Hall expressed his views in an article in The New York Times one day after the FAA grounded Boeing's MAX 8 and MAX 9 aircraft.

"Rather than naming and super-vising its own 'designated air-worthiness representative,' the (FAA) decided to allow Boeing and other manufacturers who qualified under revised procedures to select their own employees to certify the safety of their aircraft," he wrote.

Hall said pilots were not trained on flight simulators in the use of the anti-stall device. "The simulator is the fundamental tool for training pilots," Hall, now an aviation consultant in Washington, told China Daily.

Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the pilots union at American Airlines, told the news website Quartz that training for the use of the 737 MAX's anti-stall system was limited to "an iPad lesson for an hour."

Some analysts say that much of the technology in contemporary aircraft has outstripped the ability of federal regulators to keep up with advances.

They note that the FAA's practice of relying on industry insiders is no different from the US Food and Drug Administration's reliance on experts from the companies it regulates, state bar associations overseeing the conduct of attorneys and taking disciplinary action when needed, or local police investigating a shooting involving an officer.

Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the captain of an Airbus A320 on US Airways Flight 1549, landed the aircraft in the Hudson River just west of Manhattan in 2009 after the engines failed, saving the lives of all on board. He wrote in an article published by Dow Jones Market-Watch: "For too many years, the FAA has not been provided budgets sufficient to ensure appropriate oversight of a rapidly growing global aviation industry.

"Staffing has not been adequate for FAA employees to oversee much of the critically important work of validating and approving aircraft certification."

Critics said the FAA's chronic understaffing and its "cozy relationship" with manufacturers resulted in the grounding of Boeing's widebody 787 Dreamliner.

In January 2013, a lithium-ion battery sparked a fire on a Japanese Airlines Dreamliner parked at Logan International Airport in Boston. There were no injuries.

The NTSB blamed the fire, in part, on "insufficient guidance for FAA engineers to use during the certification process to ensure compliance with applicable requirements". The problem was solved by placing such batteries in a vented stainless steel box, but had the fire occurred when the plane was in the air, it could have crashed.

Safety review

In Washington, Peter DeFazio, a Democrat member of Congress from Oregon and chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, has indicated that he plans to investigate the FAA's actions, including the pending hardware and software updates, safety standards and aircraft certification.

On Tuesday, US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao asked the department's inspector-general to conduct an "objective review and detailed factual history of the activities that resulted in the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX" to be certain that the "FAA is ensuring that its safety procedures are implemented effectively".

Regulators in Canada and Europe said they will review the FAA's initial safety approval for the aircraft. In the past, foreign buyers of US-built aircraft have accepted the FAA's certification.

Chao's action follows an independent investigation reportedly launched by the US Justice Department, which is apparently proceeding on both civil and criminal lines.

A grand jury in Washington issued a subpoena on March 11 seeking information on the development of the MAX 8, related documents and relevant correspondence, The Wall Street Journal reported last week.

Citing "people familiar with the matter", the newspaper said the subpoena seeking documents listed a prosecutor from the Justice Department's criminal division as a contact, not the FAA.

Boeing and the Justice Department declined to comment. The FAA did not return calls from China Daily.

Airline accidents occur at the rate of 0.0035 per 1.60 million kilometers flown. US travelers have a 1 in 9,821 chance of dying in an air crash compared with a 1 in 114 chance of being killed in an auto accident, according to the National Safety Council.

The most recent fatal aviation accident in the US occurred in February 2009, when a plane crashed in Buffalo, New York, killing all 49 people on board. Since then, US airlines have transported about 8 billion passengers without a fatal crash.

Boeing's 737 MAX is the latest update of its popular, single-aisle, twin-engine aircraft. The fuel-efficient plane has a range of 5,594 to 7,084 kilometers. It is offered in four lengths, and seats 138 to 230 passengers. The aircraft is flown by airlines worldwide, including Air China, China Southern, Air Canada, Norwegian Air, FlyDubai, AeroMexico and Turkish Airlines. In the US, American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines fly the plane.

The 737 MAX is Boeing's fastest-selling jet, accounting for about 80 percent of its total reserve orders, according to the manufacturer.

Lin Zhijie, an aviation industry analyst and columnist at Carnoc, a Chinese civil aviation website, said, "There are 96 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft operating in China, accounting for 2.7 percent of the total fleet.

"Many Chinese airlines have canceled some of their flights that were due to be operated by the 737 MAX, as there were no other aircraft available.

"Once a plane has been grounded, an airline needs to pay for aircraft maintenance, depreciation costs, and parking fees."

In addition to the three major State-owned airlines in China, Hainan Airlines, Xiamen Airlines, Shenzhen Airlines and Shandong Airlines, among others, operate the Boeing 737 MAX.

"The 737 MAX is one of the most mainstream aircraft models globally. In the single-aisle market, Boeing originally held an advantage, but in recent years, its archrival Airbus has caught up," Lin said.

In China, Airbus has a 50 percent market share. For single-aisle aircraft, it has a market share of 48 percent, and for wide-body jets the proportion is 57 percent, according to the European manufacturer.

If the 737 MAX is grounded for a long time, and the issue is not properly resolved, this could have a larger negative impact on Boeing.

The technical details of the Ethiopian crash and any bureaucratic missteps were not of prime importance to the thousands of people who attended the memorial service for the crash victims in Addis Ababa on Sunday.

One of the victims was Amma Tesfamarian, 28, a flight attendant. She was not scheduled to work that day, but agreed to fill in for a friend.

Meselech Petros, the dead woman's sister, told The East African newspaper, "What I can't forget is that she left an 8-month-old child and didn't come back."

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)
(Web editor: Xian Jiangnan, Bianji)

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