Sun. Jun 16th, 2019

Boeing promised software fix last year, but airlines are still waiting


By Natalie Kitroeff, Jack Nicas and Thomas Kaplan


Weeks after a deadly crash involving a Boeing plane in October, company officials met separately with the pilot unions at Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. The officials said they planned to update the software for their 737 Max jets, the plane involved in the disaster, by around the end of 2018.

It was the last time the Southwest pilots union heard from Boeing, and months later, the carriers are still waiting for a fix. After a second 737 Max crashed in Ethiopia, US regulators said the software update would be ready by April.

“Boeing was going to have a software fix in the next five to six weeks,” said Michael Michaelis, the top safety official at the American Airlines pilots union and a Boeing 737 captain. “We told them, ‘Yeah, it can’t drag out.’ And well, here we are.”

This delay is now part of the intense scrutiny over Boeing’s response after the first air disaster, a Lion Air accident that killed 189 people in Indonesia. The second crash, involving an Ethiopian Airlines flight that killed 157 people, bore similarities to the first, pointing to potential problems with the automated system that requires the update.

The planned fix was “designed to detect the problem,” said Jon Weaks, the president of Southwest’s pilot union, “and keep it from recurring.” Boeing officials told Southwest union leaders that they didn’t believe any extra training was necessary beyond informing the pilots of how the software fix would function.

The potential similarities between the two crashes were central to regulators’ decision to ground the whole 737 Max line, a family of planes that has been in service for nearly two years. Boeing is now in damage control mode, as carriers cancel flights and try to limit disruptions. Boeing declined to comment for this article.

Along with the grounding, Boeing has been forced to halt deliveries of the jets, one of its best-selling planes. To qualify to fly the plane, the pilots at American were given a 56-minute iPad training and about a dozen white papers on the differences between the Max aircraft and previous 737 jets, union officials said.

Weaks of Southwest said his members were trained with an e-learning module on a company issued iPad that consisted of under three hours of video presentations about the differences between the Max and an earlier Boeing plane.

Both Southwest and American now say they expect to have simulators including the 737 Max systems by the end of this year. At least American ordered the simulator after the Lion Air crash.

The meetings last year between Boeing officials and the unions were cordial but direct. The pilots from Southwest and American who met with Boeing were frustrated that they hadn’t been notified of the newly installed software system in the 737 Max planes before the crash in Indonesia. The maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, or MCAS, is an automated system intended to prevent the plane from stalling.

“It was a very frank discussion,” said Michaelis, the union’s safety chairman. “This is to our knowledge the first time pilots were not informed of a major system on an airplane that could affect flight controls.”

The pilots demanded more information about the system. In response to the pilots’ request, Michaelis said, Boeing concurred.

The company has since provided the American pilots with basic information about MCAS, but it hasn’t updated the manual with a full explanation about how it works. The three American airlines that operate 737 Max aircraft — American and Southwest operate Max 8s and United f lies the Max 9 — have scrambled to limit any disruptions caused by the groundings.

The airlines have shifted other available aircraft to replace the jets, canceled less popular flights to use those aircraft for busier Max routes, and rebooked some flyers on other airlines.

Cancellations will vary by the day based on the availability of other aircraft. There were still some 737 Max jets flying in American skies on Thursday. The FAA granted the airlines permission to ferry their empty Max jets to new airports for long-term parking. American flew its planes from Miami, New York and Tampa, Florida, to places like Tulsa, Oklahoma, Orlando, Florida, and Mobile, Alabama.





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