Boeing’s Deadly Mistake

Any fatal accident in aviation is a tragedy, but it doesn’t warrant mass hysteria

Christine Beyleveldt, Future Australian

On March 10 a crowded Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed en route to Kenya, killing all 157 people on board. At first it appeared to be just another tragedy, but when news surfaced that the plane in question was a Boeing 737 MAX 8, which had only been in service for about six months, and the same type that another airliner, Lion Air, lost in October last year, airlines were quick to ground their MAX 8s.

The two crashes, while tragic, morphed into a widespread hysteria. Two planes came down within six months. That’s not good, but far more automobile accidents happen every single day, including deadly ones. In fact, it’s almost commonplace.

If two of the same make of car crashed and killed the passengers inside, would we ban that make of car from the road? Absolutely not. Humans are the number one cause of accidents and that includes airplane crashes.

It was estimated that over 4.3 billion people flew in 2018 and slightly more than 550 people died in plane crashes. The odds of dying in a fiery plane crash are roughly one in one millionth of a single per cent, which makes not only air travel incredibly safe but the hysteria that followed the Ethiopian Airlines crash that resulted in MAX 8s being grounded all over the world seem ludicrous.

However, as more and more airlines around the world grounded their planes, it became clear that Boeing really had made a truly tragic mistake. The engines on MAX 8 aircraft are positioned further forward than on most other aircrafts and the weight of those engines change the plane’s centre of balance. A software called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) was installed to pull the nose of the plane down and prevent it from falling back into a stall. Normally this would’ve been a crucial piece of software, except pilots weren’t trained to override it, nor were most of them informed it existed.

Unfortunately the MAX 8 was deemed similar enough to previous models of the 737-800 series according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US where Boeing is manufactured, so pilots didn’t undergo any additional training despite the MCAS being a new feature on board. So when it malfunctioned and the pilots aboard Lion Air and Ethiopia Airlines didn’t know how to control their planes it ended in tragedy. This, all because Boeing is allowed to set the standards for training of pilots, and didn’t alert air crew of the new features.

The software itself is not a bad idea, but pilots absolutely have to know it exists and be trained to override it in the event of a malfunction. Between Boeing and the FAA, action needs to be taken to rectify the error and pilots properly equipped to respond in emergency situations, but the hysteria is unwarranted. Air travel is still the safest mode of transportation and the pilots who fly commercial airlines have thousands of hours of experience, let’s not forget this.

This article was updated on April 9 to reflect that the MAX 8 engines are positioned further forward instead of backward on the Boeing aircraft.

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