Over-reliance on technology and questionable FAA oversight were linked to two crashes that killed more than 300 people. The second crash occurred 11 days after the Seattle Times questioned Boeing about safety flaws.
Technology was not only suspect in the failure of two Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft; it also played a role in pilot training.
In the “Today” video above, pilots reportedly received training in a 56-minute online iPad lesson about an aircraft whose faulty software also was suspected in causing the crashes of the Lion Air in October and Ethiopian Airlines earlier this month.
Worse, some pilots were not informed about certain safety software systems installed on their planes. According to Politico, U.S. pilots had complained at least five times about controlling the aircraft during critical stages of flight.
A particular distressing factor in the two crashes concerned additional safety features that required a pricey upgrade in airlines purchasing the MAX 8, according to the New York Times: “As the pilots of the doomed Boeing jets in Ethiopia and Indonesia fought to control their planes, they lacked two notable safety features in their cockpits. One reason: Boeing charged extra for them.”
The Times noted that upgrades typically do not involve safety–more bathrooms, for instance; in the aftermath of the crashes, Boeing will not charge extra for one of those features, in an attempt to get the MAX 8 airborne again.
Eleven days before the second crash, Seattle Times‘ reporter Dominic Gates had informed Boeing about questions concerning the power of the flight control system, designed to push the nose of the aircraft down to avert a stall. He had also learned a system reset function that could override a pilot’s response, causing the plane’s nose to keep pushing downward.
His investigative report also disclosed failed oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration:
The FAA, citing lack of funding and resources, has over the years delegated increasing authority to Boeing to take on more of the work of certifying the safety of its own airplanes.
His report illustrates the importance of fact-based journalism in a case where common sense–a distinctly human trait–was overridden by machines. This applies not only to inadequate online training, especially on tablets with insistent pinging and notifications, but also to the FAA that allowed the MAX 8 to fly after the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
One aircraft falling from the skies might have gotten the FAA’s attention; a second similar craft doing the exact same thing–pilots struggling to aright their jet–should have set off alarms.
Nevertheless, the FAA initially didn’t act after countries around the globe had grounded the MAX 8 after the second crash. This might have occurred because the Administration is “data-driven” and data from the black box of the Ethiopian Airlines crash was not immediately available.
In an interview with NPR, Peter Goelz, former managing director of the National Transportation Safety Board, said “the FAA has really prided itself on being a data-driven organization, that they don’t make ad hoc decisions” on “anecdotal evidence.” He added, the FAA has “a close working and regulatory relationship with Boeing.”
That relationship may be too close. Last week the FBI opened a criminal investigation into the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX 8.
Living Media Ethics (Routledge 2019) has sections on the influence of technology on perception as well as the importance of investigative journalism in holding government and business accountable.
That’s precisely what the Seattle Times did in its Boeing investigation.