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Opinion Mandate all airplane safety features? Be careful what you wish for

Ashley Nunes studies regulatory policy at MIT

An exhaustive review. That’s what Transport Canada has promised to do where the Boeing 737 Max is concerned. The jet has been involved in two airplane crashes within the past five months. The first occurred last October, when a Lion Air jet plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff. The second, two weeks ago, when an Ethiopian Airlines plane flying to Nairobi crashed shortly after leaving Addis Ababa. Combined, both crashes killed more than 300 people.

Since then, the Max 8 and 9 have been effectively grounded. China banned the jets from flying in its airspace. So did the European Union, Canada and (eventually) the United States. Regulators have promised to closely scrutinize the airplanes’ automation systems and how those systems were approved for use. Of particular interest is the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (or MCAS). The system pushes the nose of a climbing aircraft down if it thinks the plane is dangerously pitched up. Sensors feeding the MCAS data are believed to have malfunctioned on the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines jets, causing both to crash.

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Following the crashes, Boeing has “worked tirelessly to understand the preliminary information from the accidents.” The company expects to unveil a software fix soon. But technical solutions are unlikely to temper political pressure as some lawmakers are already calling for an “independent, third-party review” of the MCAS.

Another area of interest for legislators? Boeing’s à la carte approach to pricing.

Despite boasting state-of-the-art technology, the Max 8 lacked certain safety features. One of those features shows pilots data from different MCAS sensors. The other – called a disagree light – tells pilots if those sensors are at odds with one another.

Both jets that crashed lacked these systems. The purported reason? Boeing wanted the likes of Lion Air to pony up more cash for them. By one account, the disagree light alone would have cost airlines US$80,000 an aircraft – this on top of the plane’s US$120-million price tag. (Boeing has said it will now make the disagree light standard on all new 737 Max planes.)

This sales approach has been widely panned. “It is very questionable if these were safety-oriented additions, why they were not part of the required template of measures that should go into an airplane,” U.S. transportation chief Elaine Chao said.

Democratic Senator Joe Manchin went further, saying it was “just wrong” that safety features such as alerts weren’t required by regulators.

That’s the right sentiment. When lives are at stake, the whole-hearted embrace of imperfect technology should be resisted. From this perspective alone, requiring that safety-critical features such as alerts be mandated by regulators – rather than be considered optional extras – seems both timely and necessary. But new solutions breed new problems, and that’s something regulators should be wary of.

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The complexity of modern jets gives them a competitive advantage over their predecessors. The Boeing 737 Max, for example, can fly faster for longer while burning less fuel than the 1960s variant of the jet. However, both planes share one similarity: cramped quarters for crew. While aircraft designs have changed over the years, the amount of real estate on the flight deck has remained the same. The reason is simple: Airlines make money ferrying passengers, not pilots, around. Manufacturers such as Boeing know this and design aircraft cabins to do just that.

But this approach raises an important question. As airplanes become more complex and cockpits remain cramped, where do you put all those safety-critical alerts? Mandating that those alerts be provided is one thing. But where do you place knobs, lights and switches that can help diagnose a problem? Location is key.

In an emergency, pilots must be able to quickly find crucial controls and data. During tests simulating crashes of the Max, pilots were found to have mere seconds to do just that. But this prospect is unlikely if pilots are inundated with too many systems cramped in too little space.

Moreover, even if space could be found (it can’t), what should regulators consider safety-critical? In light of recent crashes, data on the MCAS makes sense. So does information on oxygen levels in the cabin and fuel supply in the plane’s tanks.

But how about data on the plane’s entertainment system or seat-recline features for passengers? Although these items may seem unimportant, technology often works in unexpected ways. Just look at the auto industry, which in 2005 saw more than 1.3 million Mercedes-Benz cars recalled. One of the reasons? Reports that playing with the car’s navigation system would sometimes cause seats to move – hardly an appealing (or safe) prospect for the driver.

Modern jets such as the 737 Max are far more complex, running on millions of lines of software code. Should pilots be notified when any of that code goes awry?

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These issues have – thus far at least – been overlooked. Regulators such as Transport Canada are instead focused on seeing if Boeing’s software fixes pass muster. Doing so is admittedly important – but so is resisting public pressure for solutions that invariably create new problems.

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