Chicago-based aerospace giant Boeing has announced that it would update flight control systems on its 737 Max 8 commercial jetliners after the plane was involved in two deadly accidents in the past five months. The move came hours after the Federal Aviation Administration issued an advisory mandating specific “design changes” no later than April 2019.
Reports which say that for months Boeing has faced harsh criticism from pilot groups, which took issue with a decision to update the plane’s flight controls without detailing the changes in pilot training, added that the announcement comes amid a broader crisis for Boeing in which the safety of the latest model of its best-selling commercial aircraft has been called into question.
Previously on Sunday morning a Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 people on board, just months after a brand-new 737 Max 8 went down in Indonesia on October 31, killing 189. The cause of the crash in Ethiopia remains inconclusive, with an inquiry into its causes in its earliest days.
The Federal Aviation Administration has said in its advisory that it had not been provided with any information that would draw similarities between the incidents in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
According to news reports, even before the cause of the crash was known, Chinese regulators ordered domestic airlines there to suspend all flights involving the 737 Max 8. Regulators in Singapore ordered the suspension of the aircraft Monday evening.
The company’s statement did not reference the downed Ethiopian flight, though it expressed sympathy for those who lost loved ones Sunday. The company said it was “deeply saddened” by the Lion Air crash that occurred months earlier, and said it had been working on a software fix for months.
A preliminary investigation into the cause of the plane crash in Indonesia found that a malfunctioning sensor and an automated response from the plane’s autopilot left pilots struggling to gain control of the aircraft as it tilted downward into a nosedive, later crashing into the Java Sea.
The report stopped short of assigning blame for the crash. But pilot organisations in the United States criticized Boeing after it disclosed that it had added a new feature to the plane’s autopilot system without detailing the changes in pilot training.
The new feature, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, was designed to account for minor modifications to the placement of the plane’s engines. In the process it changed a manual override feature that allowed pilots to pull the plane out of a nosedive by pulling back on its control column.
While Boeing maintains that processes are in place to overcome the “automatic trim” that nudges the nose of the plane downward in some circumstances, pilot unions say the change was not adequately outlined in pilot training.
The Federal Aviation Administration advisory has asked for a number of changes to the 737 Max 8 and Max 9 jet models specifically referenced in the MCAS system, including “activation enhancements,” “signal enhancements,” operations manuals and a pilot checklist.