The 737 Max Warning Light Glitch


In the sixth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is
quoted as saying “No man can serve two masters; for either he will hate
the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.”  The context is the impossibility of serving
both God and mammon (money), but one does not have to be a Christian to recognize
the shrewdness of Jesus’ observation that divided loyalties sooner or later
lead to trouble. 

A report from Bloomberg News this week makes this saying
particularly relevant to the ongoing woes of Boeing Inc., whose 737 MAX
airliner is still grounded after two fatal crashes led to investigations revealing
serious problems with the plane’s software. 
Now it appears that a warning light which could have helped mechanics
fix the problem that contributed to the crashes wasn’t even working, again due
to software problems.

As we have mentioned in this blog before, both the Indonesian
Lion Air crash in October 2018 and the Ethiopian Airlines March 2019 crash occurred
when problems arose with the angle-of-attack sensors.  Specifically, one of them malfunctioned, and
as a result, the defective software responded by essentially flying the plane
into the ground, despite the pilots’ efforts to stay aloft.  The warning light in question would have illuminated
if the two angle-of-attack sensor readings disagreed, showing that one of them
had a problem.  An alert pilot might have
gotten a mechanic to fix the problem, which would have avoided the issue that
led to the two fatal crashes.

But due to a separate software glitch, the warning light
turned out not to work unless the customer also asked for an optional display
showing each angle-of-attack sensor reading independently.  And 80% of 737 MAXes sold did not have that
option, and so also had a defective warning light.  It’s a little like if you ordered a car and
found out that unless you also asked for optional fog lights, your brake lights
wouldn’t work. 

By itself, the sensor disagreement warning light’s malfunction
was not a safety violation.  But in a
letter written to Congress last July, the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration
(FAA) acting head Daniel Elwell said, “A manufacturer cannot alter the
airplane’s features after it has been certified.”  The FAA is contemplating assessing fines against
the company, and such fines can range up to the tens of millions of dollars.

That is a comparative drop in the bucket in relation to the
estimated $18 billion that the firm has lost so far in the 737 MAX debacle
since that fleet was grounded last year. 
But the details of how Boeing discovered the warning-light glitch back
in 2017 and decided not to fix it immediately reveal the glaring defects in a practice
that the FAA decided to halt last November: 
allowing Boeing-paid engineers to act as FAA inspectors for certain
aspects of the certification and approval process.

Regardless of the details, the intended relationship between
the FAA and private airplane manufacturers such as Boeing is inherently
adversarial, to the extent that the point of having a regulatory agency is to
ensure that the entity regulated doesn’t get away with murder, or its corporate
equivalent.  A simple example is the state
of food manufacturing and sale in the U. S. prior to the establishment of the
U. S. Food and Drug Administration, the history of which can be traced back to
1906.  Before then, it was perfectly
legal to sell candy colored with arsenic-containing dyes to children, or fruit
with traces of the arsenic-containing insecticide Paris green.  Once laws were passed against such abominations,
the laws had to be enforced, which meant that chemists and inspectors paid by
the government went out, collected samples, and tested them for harmful
ingredients.  If found, the government
used the evidence to levy fines and other penalties against the firms, and the
U. S. food supply took a notable turn for the better.

But note that the integrity of the inspectorate—those
charged with checking the output of the private manufacturers—owed their
livelihood not to the manufacturers directly, but to the government.  This is a sound principle to ensure against
corruption and divided loyalties, but one that was neglected when Boeing
convinced the FAA to allow some of its employees to do inspections that the FAA
would normally undertake.

According to the Bloomberg report, one such
“inspector”—a Boeing employee authorized by the FAA to decide such
matters—chose to let the warning-light glitch go until a future software update
rather than issuing an immediate order to repair all the defective planes.  A clearer case of letting the fox watch over
the henhouse would be hard to find. 

This lax procedure is probably not unrelated to the fact
that Boeing is the only U. S. maker of large commercial aircraft.  Its only serious global competitor is the
European combine Airbus.  If there were
three or four viable U. S. airline manufacturers, the FAA would be in a
stronger position to levy serious and even firm-threatening penalties against
Boeing, the reason being that the other hypothetical firms could take up any
slack and still allow the U. S. airline manufacturing business to
function. 

But both Boeing and the FAA know that is not the case, and
that whatever Boeing does, the FAA isn’t going to do anything on its own that
would threaten the company’s existence and put the U. S. out of the
international airliner business. 

There are many bad things about monopolies, and one of the
worst is that they encourage laziness, both on the part of the monopoly itself
and on any agency charged with keeping an eye on it.  In surrendering some of its authority to
Boeing employees, the FAA preserved the appearance of vigilance while relinquishing
the reality.  When it ended such cozy
arrangements last November, it took a step in the right direction of putting a
respectable distance between itself and the industry it is charged with
regulating.

But cultures and perceptions do not change overnight, and
both Boeing and the FAA have a long way to go before they recover some of the public
trust that went down in flames in the 737 MAX crashes. 



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