Teachable moments from failed ET flight

In Summary

•The Boeing 737 Max is the newest version of the 737, the best-selling airliner ever.

•The captain of Ethiopian flight 302, Yared Getachew, reported a “flight control” problem in a calm voice, before then asking to return in panicked tones three minutes after takeoff

An Ethiopian Airline plane at Moi International Airport, Mombasa
An Ethiopian Airline plane at Moi International Airport, Mombasa
Image: FILE

Boeing Company is an American multinational corporation that designs, manufactures, and sells airplanes, rotorcraft, rockets, satellites, and missiles worldwide.

The Boeing 737 Max is the newest version of the 737, the best-selling airliner ever. Since debuting in 2017, Boeing has delivered more than 350 of them in several versions and the 737 MAX-8, is the newest version of the most widely used single-aisle jet in the world. Last Sunday, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed shortly after taking off from Addis Ababa. The 737 Max jet initially dipped below the safe flight path, and then, after climbing, flew at erratic height and speed. Controllers noticed the plane was moving up and down by hundreds of feet.

The captain of Ethiopian flight 302, Yared Getachew, reported a “flight control” problem in a calm voice, before then asking to return in panicked tones three minutes after takeoff, according to the New York Times. The newspaper, citing a source who had reviewed the communications from flight 302, said the pilot told controllers: “Break break, request back to home.”  Gebeyehu Fikadu, an eyewitness to Sunday's fatal crash told CNN that the plane was "swerving and dipping" and belching smoke as it came down. The ET 302 crash occurred little more than four months after the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia.

Reuters confirmed an extraordinary similarity between the two Max 8 crashes: Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines both lost altitude within 3 minutes of takeoff, recovered, and then crashed. No new model of jet has recorded two fatal accidents in its first year, until the Boeing 737 MAX-8. What subsequently unfolded was described thus by FT's Edward G. Luce:

"Mr Trump’s stance offers a unique example of the world spurning America’s lead on airline safety. His reversal is a “teachable moment” — to quote his predecessor, Barack Obama — on the realities of a  fast-changing world.''

At the heart of the concerns about the MAX-8 is a change in the automatic flight controls. Boeing is facing a lawsuit on behalf of the family of a victim of the Lion Air crash that focuses on changes made to the flight controls in a few lines of new software. The change, called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, MCAS, initiates the nose-down command without input from the pilots. The introduction of this system was not included in the flight manuals issued to pilots nor was it included in the training given to pilots who transferred to the MAX-8 series from earlier model 737s.

The FAA lacks a chief. Trump nominated his own pilot, John Dunkin — the man who flew Trump planes, not Air Force One — to head it. When the Senate laughed him off as unqualified to lead an $18bn agency, Trump failed to come up with a new name. The FAA has been flying without a pilot, so to speak, for more than a year [Edward Luce]. The FAA and Boeing sought to push back, citing possible pilot inexperience amongst other ''whataboutisms''. Meanwhile, China, the European Union and practically every other airspace jurisdiction, even Zimbabwe, closed its Airspace. A consumer group, FlyersRights.org, urged the FAA to ground the Max 8.

“The FAA’s wait-and-see attitude risks lives,” said the group’s president, Paul Hudson.

The lack of touch and finesse displayed by Boeing over the last seven days is mind-boggling. They have stayed resolutely behind the curve from the GET-Go. The Message Boeing sent was the Safety came second, a simply untenable position.  Eventually the FAA capitulated and grounded the 737 Max. 

The stock Market crashed Boeing's share -10.31% from $422.56 to $378.99 and that's another point : "There is no way in which one can buck the market." 

The big teachable moments for me were these. Ethiopian and its Government acted with a lot of decorum. Concerns about brand damage are overblown. In contrast, Boeing have taken a big hit but more worryingly the corporate's reactions to a fast moving situation were a D-. It is also an incredible statement by Ethiopian to send the aircraft's Black Box not to the FAA but to France. Thats a geopolitical moment, as it were.