The crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10 is revitalizing scrutiny against the Boeing Company. Deservedly so, since this latest tragedy follows the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 on Oct. 29. The incidents had alarming similarities. Both flights were aboard a Boeing 737 MAX, which is the newest version of Boeing’s 737 aircraft series and had debuted for commercial use as recently as May 2017. Additionally, both crashes occurred shortly after takeoff and the pilots struggled to maintain a steady climb. Investigators are narrowing in on the new Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that this model is equipped with. The MCAS is an automated system that intentionally forces the plane’s nose down if it detects an unsafe ascending tilt in the aircraft. The sensors that it relies on may have malfunctioned and forced the plane into a fatal nosedive, as was determined in the Lion Air crash.
Investigators are right to propose MCAS as the cause of the problem. Boeing seems to agree, given that the company hastily deployed a software update that they think might fix the system. But questions remain as to why the 737 MAX was approved as airworthy in the first place.
Many are criticizing Boeing’s government regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration of the United States. The FAA has conceded a lot of its evaluation responsibilities to the manufacturers, resulting in a situation where Boeing employees conduct most of the evaluation themselves. The FAA then verifies that Boeing has gone through the checklist.
The FAA has argued a plausible defense of this. Aircraft manufacturing is incredibly technical, and the FAA doesn’t have the staff necessary to understand the 4 million lines of code that comprise the 737 MAX’s flight-control computer. Only Boeing understands the machines that it produces.
Obviously, this exposes a conflict of interest. Boeing was desperate to compete with its arch-rival, Airbus, which had released the fuel-efficient A320neo to European airliners in 2016. Boeing reportedly rushed its engineers to complete the designs for the 737 MAX at twice the standard pace. They may have cut corners to get their new plane to market.
Reigning in Boeing’s hastiness isn’t as easy as increasing the FAA budget. Even with more staff, regulators cannot be expected to keep up with the rapid technological change in the airline industry. FAA evaluators would have to be trained by Boeing on the program being evaluated, which is still a conflict of interest in a different format.
Instead, we should start enforcing a separation between the government and Boeing. The two have had a cozy relationship since World War II, where the manufacturer obtained unprecedented subsidization from the federal government as it mass-produced 98,965 aircrafts for the war effort. That subsidization hasn’t really disappeared to this day. 36 percent of Boeing’s revenue comes from the U.S. Department of Defense. The company’s lobbyists wield a lot of clout in Washington D.C., where legislators are regularly persuaded to allocate make-work funds for Boeing to produce things that no one needs.
This could easily be a whole article about corporate welfare, but this relationship also has safety implications with deadly consequences. Boeing and the FAA released very similar public statements after the Lion Air crash, which makes you wonder if the two agreed on what to say beforehand. That is concerning because it undermines the independence of the FAA. We want it to be a regulator, not a lapdog.
Since the FAA cannot evaluate Boeing’s aircraft effectively, it should at least enforce its independence from the corporate behemoth. Close ties breed complacency as well as corruption. The FAA should be authorized to wield two new tools in its oversight. First, Boeing should be subject to extreme fines when manufacturer’s error is cited in a plane crash. BP had to pay a record $62 billion for the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Considering Boeing’s entire revenue of $101 billion in 2018, a fine of even half that size would be punishment aplenty. The threat of fines can temper the urgency that Boeing felt when they rushed the 737 MAX out of the hangar.
Second, the FAA should preemptively investigate Boeing at all times. This means conducting surprise visits to company facilities, similar to how food safety regulators drop into restaurants with little warning. The goal is to be sure that Boeing is taking safety measures seriously in every stage of aircraft development, from blueprint to assembly, instead of just sprucing up a nice report at the final evaluation stage. Additionally, the FAA should be easy to access for any Boeing employee that wants to expose unaddressed safety flaws without losing their job. The FAA can protect the anonymity of these whistleblowers by crediting the information found to its investigators.
Boeing does take safety seriously. The U.S. airline industry remains the safest in the world. But decades of having a cozy relationship with the government has given Boeing more safety leeway than it should have. Even the slightest mistakes can cause hundreds of deaths, so we must not turn a blind eye.