Op-Ed: Musings on the 737 MAX

Op-Ed: Musings on the 737 MAX

Repeal and Replace?

Consumer activist and former Presidential candidate Ralph Nader lost a grand niece in the Ethiopian Airlines, so naturally he is close to the issue.

He came out with a rather extreme claim that the 737MAX as it stands needs to be treated as a faulty product and, in his words “recalled.”

Centring around the aerodynamic changes caused by engine placement, he argues that the “grandfathered” certification by the FAA was rash and that Boeing’s involvement in the certification process of its own plane was an example of regulatory capture.

Nader argues that trust is lost, the aircraft is fundamentally less safe than the aircraft before it.

He argues, further, that this is going to become a larger and larger problem in safety-specific fields like medicine, aviation, and defence. It is part of a larger thesis in his opinion. Short-term profits have gone before safety and there is now an ‘acceptable risk.’

Note, I am just laying out facts – so don’t shoot the messenger.

He argues that Boeing should recall the current 737MAX out there, make changes he has yet to specify, but changes, and either start with a true clean sheet design or make fundamental changes to the aerodynamics of the 737MAX.

That is a viewpoint. Is it correct? Unclear it is a VIEWPOINT. Not my viewpoint.

A soft fix

PHOTO: Southwest Airlines.

Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg came out with a statement acknowledging the role of their MCAS software in the losses of both JT610 and ET302.

And yet, as of today – the plane has yet to regain its ability to fly passengers. Indeed, Boeing has announced a 20% production decrease for the airliner. No one really has any idea how long this grounding is going to last.

The Blackest of Swans

Thing is, no matter how you look at it. The 737MAX is a Black Swan event bar none. No one could have seen all the scrutiny, questions, and outrage that came until it already happened.

In truth, no one actually could realistically envision a modern airliner crashing. It stretched public belief that in 2019, an airliner could potentially have been lost due to a design-fault, twice!

This is an unprecedented situation, and usually, when something like this happens – stock prices are affected.

Now yes, Boeing did close lower today. Thing is, the fact that Boeing’s stock has not really taken a heavy beating is almost a Black Swan event in and of itself.

If one wanted to, they could be very dull and do a lot of math – go full on Taleb, and start talking about fragility – but I’d argue that since we are in the middle of the swanning, it’s all sophistry.

Thing is, this is not something any agency, airframer, or airline was fit to deal with at once. Ostrower called the grounding a change to the “World Order” of aviation.

Thing is, I don’t like Kissinger. The “World Order” hypothesis is more or less a thinly veiled screed on maintaining American Hegemony without question. It’s a little too jingoist.

Ostrower’s not wrong in that things are going to have to change, he’s just ignoring the scope somewhat.

Popular problems

The last time the public was so concerned with the design issues of an airliner was long ago in the era of the DC-10.

We all know about it, even a few weeks ago I was on NPR and said that the flying public will soon forget about this and continue on numerous MAX to their holidays without a single care.

I’m no longer sure.

In the era of the internet, it’s harder to move the narrative. There are more sources. The signal-to-noise ratio is higher than ever.

I, still, have people ask me if they are flying on a MAX. Despite the fact, there are none flying passengers, for instance. Online Travel Agencies like Kayak are now letting customers search by aircraft type.

Passengers are not, usually, aviation safety experts. They see the media saying “a thing happened, it was bad,” backed up by other media outlets and their friend’s biases.

That’s enough to make 737MAX travel a very hard sell for a while. Especially in an era where all everyone does is sew discord for the sake of fame or fortune.

This is the 24/7 news cycle combined with the Internet and Social Media. This is not the era where networks are out of bandwidth for reportage on design changes to the DC-10 so it fades from national, or international, memory and magically becomes safe.

No one has ever seen this before in the aviation world. Even with the disappearance of MH370, another aviation Black Swan.

Then again, no two black swans are the same. Economically, at least. I’m not a very good ornithologist.

The Regulatory Question

People wonder how the FAA let this happen. People wonder how every civil regulator let this happen, really.

It’s simple. They didn’t think it would. A design fault slipping past the airframer, the airframer’s quality assurance, and themselves were just completely without fathom.

You can talk about the disputed, James Reason Swiss Cheese model here – I won’t. That implies an awareness of potential errors and all the holes lining up such that something worse happens.

That implies a certain awareness of the potential for error.

That’s not what happened here. This was a situation that no one planned for because it was so entirely unexpected.

Pretty much everyone has an opinion on why it happened now, of course, that’s the same for all Black Swan events. They only know an opinion was even needed after the unknown revealed itself.

People have spent a lot of words discussing whether there were budgetary motives for allowing Boeing to participate so deeply in their own certification.

In truth, it’s a red herring of an argument. The consensus that has begun to coalesce is that modern airliners are so complicated, it’s unfair for the regulator to be asked to understand them in full.

Paradoxical, yes. The pre-MAX grounding orthodoxy was that the regulator must know everything. Except, this has proven they can’t.

Going forward, outside of any questions of regulatory capture – I would imagine the regulators of the world not to require well-commented source-code of all the flight control software; but instead to learn from this and use their resources to design tests for specific failure categories.

I would also imagine a move away from the classification of risk within the framework. Anything that will have a potential to alter flight characteristics in a hazardous way will now be investigated to the utmost extent.

This does mean that all things related to certifying new airliners is not going to be as speedy as it once was.

What does all of this mean?

Well, at least everyone is beginning to accept this is unprecedented. That’s what.

This is a good thing. A new mode of thinking is required to solve this problem.

This is not necessarily a problem that can be solved instantly and get the 737MAX back in the air with revenue pax tomorrow.

It’s taken a while for people to realize this, but now that the organizational thinking is getting there – people can actually do something that may result in a truly safe, lasting, fix.

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