Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, the lead author of the book Canada Firsts and the co-author of Collision Course: The Truth About Airline Safety.
Immediately after the Boeing 737 Max crash in Ethiopia on March 10, 2019, following a similar crash off the coast of Indonesia on Oct. 29, 2018, authoritative calls for grounding the entire 737 Max fleet were heeded by China, the European Union and Brazil. Nonetheless, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) resisted. It chose to repeatedly call safe this troubled aircraft’s flawed designs. The defective 737 Max took the lives of 346 persons, including my grandniece, Samya Rose Stumo.
After Canada grounded its airlines’ three dozen 737 Max planes, the FAA had little choice but to follow suit. At that moment, airline safety advocates in the U.S. held out hope that Canada would end its long deference to the discredited FAA and conduct a thorough, open, independent inquiry with legitimate demands for essential information from Boeing.
Alas, this hope was dashed. Without a focused public outcry, it looks like the Liberal government will replicate the FAA’s ungrounding ruling some time early next year, albeit with minor additions.
The FAA has long been influenced by aircraft manufacturers and airlines lobbying Congress and the White House, which has had the effect of it having neither an adequate budget, enforcement authority or sufficient technical staff. As a result, the FAA has been influenced by industry apologists making the agency safe for Boeing, letting the giant company have too much influence in the certification process of its own aircraft. This is regulatory abdication.
Long removed from its reputation as a sterling engineering company, Boeing, after the McDonnell Douglas merger in 1997, became a finance-centric company, prioritizing stock options, huge stock buybacks and profits that pushed up its share price. Boeing’s disinvestment in new aircraft development led company executives to choose to go with a very profitable, quick-and-dirty, hoked-up 737 Max. Quickly, airlines signed up for 5,000 orders for this US$100-million-plus aircraft because of fuel efficiency and less-expensive training requirements.
What wasn’t apparent was the deadly hidden software, called the MCAS, inside the flight-control system apparently meant to compensate for the aircraft’s flawed unstable aerodynamic engine position/fuselage mismatch. A veteran aerospace safety expert told me that “The Boeing marketeers overruled the Boeing engineers.”
Over the past eleven years, the excellent safety record of U.S. commercial airlines (one fatality) lulled the FAA into smugness. It seemed indifferent to the new risks of expanding automation and software-controlled flying designs coming out of Boeing’s factories. Driven by a profit-maximizing ethos, Boeing got the MCAS installed without adequate FAA scrutiny or proper pilot training.
Imagine the pilots of the Indonesian and Ethiopian 737 Max suddenly losing control to a stealth, misfiring MCAS that drove the big planes down to disaster at nearly 900 kilometres an hour.
Neither severe criticism by official U.S. government-sponsored reports nor an indictment by a congressional report of the cushy FAA/Boeing relationship have gotten Boeing to open up. The company is hiding critical engineering tests and evaluations under the curtain of phony trade secrecy.
Indeed, on Oct. 1, 2020, Democrats heading the House Transportation Committee urged, but did not subpoena, the FAA to “release all documents, related to … the aircraft’s safe return to service … and key test data concerning the safety of the aircraft.” The FAA ignored this demand.
Transport Canada and Parliament are affected by Washington’s unwillingness to require Boeing to divulge the information necessary to evaluate Boeing and FAA claims about the justification for ungrounding. An arrogant Boeing refused even to respond to a parliamentary committee’s belated invitation to testify. Cogent questions to Transport Canada by engineer Chris Moore, who lost his daughter in the Ethiopian crash, have gone unanswered.
Also ignored was the parliamentary testimony of the 737 Max flight-control expert, Gilles Primeau, who told me: “The investigation requested by the families’ victims might have led to giving Transport Canada more teeth, finally forcing Boeing to be more collaborative. Their own officers indicated their main problem is working only from data Boeing is willing to disclose.” Technical submissions to the FAA’s rule-making docket were overwhelmingly critical. FAA engineers’ objections and warnings by pilots, such as the famous Captain Chesley Sullenberger, were dismissed without technical response.
So when last week, a parliamentary committee, by a vote of 9 to 2, declined to recommend a public inquiry to the Trudeau cabinet, the ever-resilient, grieving families felt like the invisible hand of the Boeing/FAA alliance had taken over Ottawa. Maybe with a whistle-blower here, a media exposé there, some courageous public servants can reverse course toward subpoenaing documents.
Still to come in the U.S. is a federal grand jury’s decision about potential 737 Max criminal violations, a federal lawsuit by non-profit Flyers Rights challenging the FAA’s ungrounding order and the tort law civil actions filed by the families.
With increasing competition from China, Brazil, as well as Airbus, Boeing’s leadership in the large commercial jet market cannot survive another Boeing design-driven 737 Max crash killing unprotected passengers.
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