The Boeing 737 MAX story — and its implications

This morning’s Observer column:

Here’s a question. Well, two questions, actually. One: how could an aircraft manufacturer long celebrated for its commitment to engineering excellence produce an airliner with aerodynamic characteristics that made it unstable under some circumstances – and then release it with remedial computer software that appeared to make it difficult for pilots to take control? And two: why did the government regulator approve the plane – and then dither about grounding the model after it had crashed?

The aircraft in question is the Boeing 737 Max. The regulator is the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The questions are urgent because this model has crashed twice – first in the Java Sea last October with the deaths of 189 people, and then in Ethiopia in March with the deaths of 157 people. Evidence retrieved from the second crash site suggested that the plane had been configured to dive before it came down. And the Ethiopian transport minister was quoted by Al-Jazeera on 4 April as saying that the crew “performed all the procedures repeatedly provided by the manufacturer but was not able to control the aircraft”. The FAA initially reaffirmed the airworthiness of the plane on 11 March but then grounded it on 13 March.

The full story of this catastrophe remains to be told, but we already know the outlines of it…

Read on