Aircraft manufacturers will soon face new safety management rules calling for better pilot training and a more stringent final review process, which is designed to avoid problems like those that have plagued the Boeing 737 Max passenger aircraft since it was introduced.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced new Safety Management Systems (SMS) rules this week, indicating that the measures are necessary to help better evaluate designs, procedures, and training of pilots before new planes are approved for use. The changes come after two fatal airplane crashes involving the Boeing 737 MAX shortly after the redesigned aircraft was introduced.
The FAA and its parent agency, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) have faced increased pressure over the past year to increase safety oversight, as critics have blamed lax procedures and an overly cozy relationship with Boeing for the lack of a detailed certification process for the Boeing 737 MAX Jet.
The SMS rule changes will reportedly require better internal safety systems from aircraft manufacturers, and which will reexamine the process used to test how pilots will react to failures and alerts. The measures may have helped avoid the two deadly crashes involving the Boeing 737 MAX, which claimed 346 lives.
On October 10, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the sea just 13 minutes into its flight, killing all passengers and crew. Investigators later determined that the pilots fought for 11 minutes to keep the Boeing 737 Max in the air, likely due to a problem with the plane’s Angle of Attack (AOA) sensor, which kept telling an automated system to point the nose down. The pilots did not know how to turn the automated system off.
A second Boeing 737 MAX accident occurred just months later, when Ethiopian Airline Flight 302 fell from the air just minutes into its flight on March 10, 2019, also killing all passengers and crew.
The two accidents had noted similarities, leading nations worldwide to ground Boeing’s entire 737 MAX fleet until further investigations could be completed and any safety issues addressed. The company had 400 planes in operation around the world with orders for 5,000 more before countries began grounding the jets after the crashes.
The FAA’s investigations discovered problems with the AOA sensors, which was designed in the 737 MAX models to measure the attitude of the wings in relation to airflow. The system was made up of two sensors, which measured whether the plane had the proper angle of attack to maintain lift.
The software for those sensors was supposed to have an alarm that warned the crew if the two sensors disagreed, known as the AOA Disagree alert. But that alert relied on yet another system, known as the AOA indicator, which Boeing charged extra to include as an “option.” However, without it, the AOA Disagree alert would not activate.
A number of airlines purchased the 737 Max without the optional indicator, not realizing it was necessary for the AOA Disagree alert to work.
Despite Boeing discovering this error in 2017 within several months of the first planes being shipped out, investigators say the company failed to notify the FAA of the problem until November 2018, about a month after the Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the sea.
After investigators warned that the problem should have never gotten past the certification process, the DOT and the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched a criminal probe into the certification of the Boeing 737 MAX jet. Those are in in addition to ongoing investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board as well as French investigators.
In April 2019, Boeing’s Chairman, President and CEO Dennis Muilenburg issued an apology for the two plane accidents, acknowledging that both flights appeared to suffer from erroneous angle of attack information. He stepped down from the position in December 2019.
As a result, Boeing faces a growing number of wrongful death lawsuits from family members of victims of both accidents.