By Kenya Confidential Aviation Editor, Nairobi March 16, 2019
American Pilots repeatedly voiced safety concerns about the Boeing 737 Max 8 to federal authorities, with one captain calling the flight manual “inadequate and almost criminally insufficient” several months before Sunday’s Ethiopian Air crash that killed 157 people, an investigation has revealed.
US Media Investigations found five complaints about the Boeing model in a federal database where pilots can voluntarily report about aviation incidents without fear of repercussions.
The complaints are about the safety mechanism cited in preliminary reports about an October Boeing 737 Max 8 crash in Indonesia that killed 189.
The disclosures found reference problems with an autopilot system, and they all occurred during the ascent after takeoff. Many mentioned the plane suddenly nosing down. While records show these flights occurred in October and November, the airlines the pilots were flying for is redacted from the database.
Records show that a captain who flies the Max 8 complained in November that it was “unconscionable” that the company and federal authorities allowed pilots to fly the planes without adequate training or fully disclosing information about how its systems were different from those on previous 737 models.
The captain’s complaint was logged after the FAA released an emergency airworthiness directive about the Boeing 737 Max 8 in response to the crash of Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia.
Tragedy in Ethiopia
All 157 people onboard Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 302 — the Max 8 variant of the new Boeing 737 jet — were killed when it crashed shortly after take-off from the capital Addis Ababa on its way to Nairobi in Kenya on Sunday. The tragedy set in chain a series of events that rapidly left Boeing and its US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, isolated.
An FAA spokesman said the reports found were filed directly to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which serves as a neutral third party for reporting purposes.
The FAA issued a statement from acting Administrator Daniel K. Elwell saying that the agency “continues to review extensively all available data and aggregate safety performance from operators and pilots of the Boeing 737 MAX.”
“Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft. Nor have other civil aviation authorities provided data to us that would warrant action,” the statement said.
A federal audit in 2014 said that the FAA does not collect and analyze its voluntary disclosure reporting in a way that would effectively identify national safety risks.
U.S. regulators are mandating that Boeing upgrade the plane’s software by April but have so far declined to ground the planes. China, Australia and the European Union have grounded the 737 Max 8, leaving the U.S. and Canada as the only two countries flying a substantial number of the aircraft.
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who leads a Senate subcommittee overseeing aviation, said in a statement that U.S. authorities should ground the planes.
“Further investigation may reveal that mechanical issues were not the cause, but until that time, our first priority must be the safety of the flying public,” the Republican said.
The United States followed much of the rest of the world in grounding Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 jets after the models were involved in two deadly plane crashes in five months. President Donald Trump and the FAA, which had initially resisted the move, issued the order last Wednesday.
Trump told reporters that “until further notice” the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will ground the planes in question in the US as part of an emergency order. “The safety of the American people, of all people, is our paramount concern,” he said.
American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, which fly Boeing 737 Max 8 planes, will be affected, as well United, which has Boeing 737 Max 9s.
The US is the last country with a significant number of Boeing 737 Max 8s to ground the planes. Canada, which also initially held out, decided to ground the planes earlier in the day on Wednesday.
At least 18 carriers — including American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, the two largest U.S. carriers flying the 737 Max 8 — had declined to ground planes, saying they are confident in the safety and “airworthiness” of their fleets. American has 24 of the planes, and Southwest has 34.
“The United States should be leading the world in aviation safety,” said John Samuelsen, president of a union representing transport workers that called Tuesday for the planes to be grounded. “And yet, because of the lust for profit in the American aviation, we’re still flying planes that dozens of other countries and airlines have now said need to be grounded.”
The complaint from the captain who called into question the 737 Max 8’s flight manual ended: “The fact that this airplane requires such jury rigging to fly is a red flag. Now we know the systems employed are error-prone — even if the pilots aren’t sure what those systems are, what redundancies are in place and failure modes. I am left to wonder: what else don’t I know?”
A spokesperson for Dallas-based Southwest Airlines said that it hasn’t received any reports of issues with MCAS from its pilots, “nor do any of our thousands of data points from the aircraft indicate any issues with MCAS.”
American Airlines issued a statement saying that it believes the Max 8 planes are safe, that its pilots are well-trained to fly them, and that the Fort Worth-based company has not “had similar issues regarding an erroneous angle of attack during manual flight.”
The FAA earlier issued a statement saying it was “collecting data and keeping in contact with international civil aviation authorities as information becomes available.”
“The FAA continuously assesses and oversees the safety performance of U.S. commercial aircraft,” the statement said. “If we identify an issue that affects safety, the FAA will take immediate and appropriate action.”
Jon Weaks, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said in a news release Monday night: “We fully support Southwest Airlines’ decision to continue flying the MAX and the FAA’s findings to date.”
Boeing, which posted a record $101 billion in revenue last year, issued a new statement Tuesday saying that no grounding of planes was necessary. “Based on the information currently available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators,” the company said.
Samuelsen, of the transport workers union, said it’s “unconscionable” that the FAA has not yet grounded the planes in the U.S., given the number of deaths that have occurred.
“This pressure should not be on these pilots to overcome an engineering flaw that Boeing themselves acknowledges,” he said.
The Max family is the latest version of the 737, the world’s best-selling commercial airliner, but the grounding of the 385 aircraft Boeing has delivered to 36 airlines around the world could end up costing the US aircraft maker well over $1bn.
The 737 Max, which only entered service in May 2017, is Boeing’s fastest selling aircraft with almost 5,000 orders. Airlines were drawn to the plan by its promises of much improved economics because of its more fuel-efficient engines. Commonality in the cockpit with previous generations of 737s also meant that pilots would not require lengthy retraining.
How can I check whether my flight is on a 737 Max?
If you already have a ticket, you should be able to tell from the booking details. If you are making a booking online, many sites indicate the model. If not, websites such as http://flightstats.com allow you to dig into details of flights at least a few days in advance, including the make and type.