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Community Voices (Pyatt): Boeing needs confidence of safety experts, public if 737 Max is to fly again

I previously wrote about problems to date with the Boeing 737 Max. There is quite a bit at stake, including U.S. leadership in producing commercial aircraft. All evidence points to the merger of McDonnell Douglas with Boeing in 1997, with the McDonnell position of dollars and cents profitability as opposed to aircraft design excellence. This gradually eroded Boeing’s solid reputation.

The biggest technological improvements in the past decade or so lies in engine design and manufacturing, where high temperature resistant materials and improvements in weight and modern theoretical flow analyses make engines perform with better fuel economy. More engineering now goes into jet engine improvements than to the airframe, e.g. the rest of the aircraft.

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But safety and design review of the basic aircraft are still important and must undergo approval by the Federal Aviation Administration. It is unfortunate that the European equivalent of the FAA refuses to assure the safety of the 737 Max. It seems like Boeing concentrated sales of the 737 Max — which set sales records when introduced because of fuel efficiency — on domestic air carriers, and it has been a business bonanza.

There are two different and somewhat complex issues to be resolved. The first one is to assure that safety aviation experts and pilots must conclude that the 737 Max redesigned aircraft does not add any perceptible risk to air travel. My sense is that this is not far off, although Boeing has seriously underestimated this task to date and made some blunders. The second problem — and this could be more daunting — is that the flying public accepts this conclusion. This can often be more difficult given the degradation of confidence.

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It’s hard to predict when and if the 737 Max will be given the OK to fly again. Some of the recent revelations in the Wall Street Journal about internal Boeing memos and emails look pretty damning, at least on the surface. There are likely to be more congressional hearings and more headlines.

I’ve reviewed comments, news clips and reports from pilots, and I agree — they only have 4 seconds to make the correct call if the MCAS system is activated — that the current system has a flaw. Maybe half of the pilots (a very rough estimate), those better-trained and with more flight experience, could do the right thing. But we need a design that’s probably 95-99% guaranteed to work.

Boeing has a two-pronged problem. First, they have to clear their calendar and work with a team of engineers and pilots to come up with a system that will work a high percentage of the time. They then have to present this plan to the FAA and have everybody agree that it will work.

It can’t be done piecemeal, must have strong internal review, and there may only be one shot at this. It they goof, it could be lights out for Boeing aircraft.

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Secondly, and just as important, they must convince the public that there is a good plan for FAA oversight, there is adequate staffing and expertise at FAA, and that this problem won’t occur again. Since this is institutional, it may take several years to achieve this.

If the technical problems are fixed and the FAA procedural issue is worked out — including a review of expertise and organizational problems within FAA — and the public has a reasonable assurance it will succeed, then the 737 Max can gain flight approval.

I lived through the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s response to Three Mile Island both outside and inside the USNRC. It always takes longer than originally thought, and when there is no clear-cut answer, be prepared to go down blind alleys. It’s no different than writing a newspaper column — rewrite, rewrite.

The 737 series of aircraft is tried and true, and I can see why Boeing chose to update it rather than start from scratch with a new design. With hindsight being 20/20, a total redesign may have been better in the long run.

But to try to jam the current fix through may doom the future of Boeing aircraft and hurt our U.S. economy. Ha! Easy for me to say, since I don’t have Boeing stock and am not a commercial pilot wondering what future employment — Southwest airlines flies 737s exclusively and may have to furlough pilots — will be. There is pending litigation between Boeing and the Southwest Airlines pilots association.

But I sense the American public, already reeling from the Ukranian jet shot down in Iran, needs reassurance that our new fleet of jets is as safe as the older ones, perhaps even safer with new technology.

Dave Pyatt writes from Mount Airy. Email him at DPyatt2@verizon.com.

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