Boeing announced overnight that the company would release a software update for its 737 Max planes “no later” than next month. The announcement, which was posted to Boeing’s website, calls the software release an “enhancement” and explains that it’s related to the October crash of Lion Air Flight 610 which killed 189 people. Sunday’s crash that killed 157 in Ethiopia is only mentioned in passing.
Both the Lion Air crash and the Ethiopian Airlines crash occurred with the 737 Max-8 airplane, but Boeing’s software update appears to be for all planes in the Max line. There’s concern among aviation experts that the two crashes may be related to automation of flight control systems in the plane, but the investigation into what caused Sunday’s crash is still in its early stages.
Southwest Airlines is currently operating 34 of the 737 Max-8 planes, while American Airlines currently flies 24 of the Max-8 aircraft. United Airlines doesn’t fly the Max-8, though it does have 14 of the Max-9 in its fleet.
From the Boeing press release:
For the past several months and in the aftermath of Lion Air Flight 610, Boeing has been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer. This includes updates to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight control law, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training. The enhanced flight control law incorporates angle of attack (AOA) inputs, limits stabilizer trim commands in response to an erroneous angle of attack reading, and provides a limit to the stabilizer command in order to retain elevator authority.
The Boeing announcement insists that pilots are “always” able to override erroneous automation, something that has been a chief concern for those investigating the Lion Air crash. It’s believed that the plane may have pushed its own nose down too far in an effort not to stall and that the pilot was unable to correct for the false reading.
A pitch augmentation control law (MCAS) was implemented on the 737 MAX to improve aircraft handling characteristics and decrease pitch-up tendency at elevated angles of attack. It was put through flight testing as part of the certification process prior to the airplane entering service. MCAS does not control the airplane in normal flight; it improves the behavior of the airplane in a non-normal part of the operating envelope.
Boeing’s 737 MAX Flight Crew Operations Manual (FCOM) already outlines an existing procedure to safely handle the unlikely event of erroneous data coming from an angle of attack (AOA) sensor. The pilot will always be able to override the flight control law using electric trim or manual trim. In addition, it can be controlled through the use of the existing runaway stabilizer procedure as reinforced in the Operations Manual Bulletin (OMB) issued on Nov. 6, 2018.
Gizmodo has reached out to Boeing for more details but did not immediately get a response. As Boeing notes in its press release, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) isn’t mandating any kind of action right now. But the company says it expects the FAA to mandate the software upgrade through an “Airworthiness Directive (AD) no later than April.”
What Boeing doesn’t mention is that aviation experts are raising the alarm in a way that is uncharacteristic for their profession. The typical “wait and see” approach has gone out the window, even among seasoned veterans who never want to cause a panic.
“U.S. FAA ought to ground the fleet worldwide,” FAA Chief of Staff Michael Goldfarb said on BBC TV yesterday before the FAA made its announcement that it would not be taking any action.
“Chances are this crash isn’t exactly what the Lion Air crash is, but I’ve never seen such seasoned veteran investigators, to a person, speculate... speculate, which we’re not supposed to do, and say ‘this has the profile of the Lion Air crash.’”
Australia and Singapore joined the growing list of countries that have grounded their Boeing 737 Max airplanes overnight. China and Indonesia were the first to ground the planes after Sunday’s crash.
“This is a temporary suspension while we wait for more information to review the safety risks of continued operations of the Boeing 737 MAX,” Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority chief executive and director of aviation safety, Shane Carmody, told the Sydney Morning Herald.
The decision by Australia was actually a reversal of what it had said earlier in the day, insisting that it would wait for guidance from the FAA. After the FAA gave the Boeing plane the all-clear, Australian aviation authorities still decided to ground the planes.
Meanwhile, passengers in the U.S. are taking to social media to express their displeasure about potentially flying on Boeing 737 Max planes. But they might not have any recourse.
“Travelers can cancel their flights, but would not be eligible to claim compensation if they decide to do so,” Henrik Zillmer, the chief executive of AirHelp, told the New York Times. “They do not have a right to compensation or reimbursement for tickets purchased as it is technically their decision to cancel.”
Customers who are concerned about whether they’ll be flying on a Boeing 737 Max plane can check their flight at SeatGuru. Just know that you’re probably going to be charged for changing your flight.