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What Did Boeing Know and When?

By April 23, 2020 No Comments

Suppose I was to sell you an expensive piece of very beneficial equipment that could, on rare occasion be dangerous to operate? Would you buy it? Suppose I was to explain there was an optional part that would virtually fix the danger, but it would cost extra. Would you buy the part? Or, might you be inclined to ask, “Why isn’t the part included?”

This is the issue that Boeing and its customers now face in light of two tragic (and almost a third) crashes of the 737 Max planes. So, what did Boeing know and when?

Angle of Attack Indicator

There were an indicator and software associated with the indicator that was not installed on the two (almost three) jets that crashed. The upgrade would have cost the Indonesian and Ethiopian airlines an extra charge.

What did Boeing Know And When Did They Know It?Apparently, airliners are “no different” than buying cars or boats. Options can be ordered for all kinds of purposes from things to improve beauty and comfort to safety and navigation system. There is an essential difference here. With the exception of pure luck, when a plane crashes, everyone dies.

After the crashes, Boeing will make the safety feature standard and not an option. The FAA is looking into whether the omission of software that Boeing could have installed on the 737 Max that may have contributed to the tragedies. I am obviously not an aeronautical engineer but I understand the software can tell the pilots whether the nose of the plane is pointing up or down in headwinds and tailwinds. It is called the angle of attack. It would seem to me to be a big deal.

Supposedly, the software is made to either “agree or disagree” with standard software as to whether the jet could potentially be in trouble. It is presumably more sensitive.

Here’s the problem.

According to an airline safety analyst, Bjorn Fehrm, these measures are “critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install…Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”

Commercial airliners are far from cheap, costing in the tens of millions of dollars. However, let’s focus not on the total cost, but the options. The aircraft leasing firm, Jackson Square Aviation states, “Around the time Boeing was starting to market its 737 Max 8, an airline would expect to spend about $800,000 to $2 million on various options… that would be about 5 percent of the plane’s final price.”

If we were to extrapolate the cost of the software just for the angle of attack problem relatively speaking it would be a pittance.

Sure, it was available, but what did Boeing know and when?

The major carriers such as Southwest Airlines or United Airlines, either purchased the software or have other systems in place which take its place. But what of the Ethiopian (Lion) Airlines? They either couldn’t afford the options or felt the standard measures were sufficient. They made a bad bet. Why then, couldn’t Boeing offer the software as standard?

Again, this is not the same thing as giving customers of an Escalade the option of metallic paint or a darkened windshield. This is a huge airliner going 500 miles per hour.

Yes, Boeing could say, well it was available, but ethically is that good enough? An option seems to imply that it is not essential (I don’t need green metallic paint). But why would something that could save lives, especially something relatively inexpensive not is standard?

Then there are airlines. Purchasing people who negotiate these sales (often through an intermediary) are not country bumkins,’ why did they not press Boeing to throw it into the mix? Had they no negotiating power?

Was something included or excluded here on the basis of unethical behavior and greed? Did the airline purchasing agents want to pat themselves on the back for coming in under budget, or did the Boeing salespeople want to make the sale so badly that they minimized the need for the planes to have software and sensors?

What is known at this time is that hundreds of people are dead, that Boeing has fixed the fleet of 737 Max’s and that no one is pointing fingers at themselves.

The ethical ramifications of these crashes have not yet been fully determined. Yet the question remains, what did Boeing know and when did they know it?

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