Workers walk past a Boeing 737 Max 8 airplane being built for TUI Group at a Boeing plant in Renton, Wash. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

At tense meeting with Boeing executives, pilots fumed about being left in dark on plane software

www.washingtonpost.com
2019-03-14

The meeting last fall followed the deadly crash off Java of a Boeing 737 Max 8 operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air. Some pilots were furious that they were not told about the new software when the plane was unveiled.

 



By Aaron Gregg ,

Jonathan O'Connell ,

Andrew Ba Tran and

Faiz Siddiqui March 13 at 9:38 PM

 

Boeing executives sat down last November with pilots at the Allied Pilots Association’s low-slung brick headquarters in Fort Worth.

 

Tensions were running high. One of Boeing’s new jets — hailed by the company as an even more reliable version of Boeing’s stalwart 737 — had crashed into the ocean off Indonesia shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 people on board the flight operated by Lion Air.

 

After the crash, Boeing issued a bulletin disclosing that this line of planes, known as the 737 Max 8, was equipped with a new type of software as part of the plane’s automated functions. Some pilots were furious that they were not told about the new software when the plane was unveiled.

 

Dennis Tajer, a 737 captain who attended the meeting with Boeing executives, recalled, “They said, ‘Look, we didn’t include it because we have a lot of people flying on this and we didn’t want to inundate you with information.’ ”

 

“I’m certain I did say, ‘Well that’s not acceptable,’ ” said Tajer, a leader in the association representing American Airlines pilots.

 

A Boeing spokesman said the company disputes that any of its executives made that statement.

 

On Wednesday, federal regulators ordered the grounding of the 737 Max 8 and a similar plane, the 737 Max 9, after another crash involving the plane, on this occasion in Ethi­o­pia on Sunday. Many other countries had already acted.

 

In statements throughout the week, Boeing has said that safety is its top priority. But it also announced that it would take several steps to make the planes “even safer,” including updating the flight-control software as well as pilot displays, operating manuals and crew training. The company said these changes would be implemented over the coming weeks.

 

The announcement comes after years in which Boeing had trumpeted the new plane as offering a “seamless” transition from previous models, a changeover that would not require carriers to invest in extensive retraining.

 

And it highlights concerns from pilots and other groups about whether Boeing moved fast enough to address potential problems after the Lion Air crash.

 

Congress, regulators and the company’s shareholders are now scrutinizing the decisions.

 

On Wednesday, Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he would hold hearings to study the Federal Aviation Administration’s process for approving the planes.

 

DeFazio cited a concern that has particularly alarmed pilots, the introduction of software that was flagged in the bulletin sent out after the Lion Air crash.

 

The software, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), can in some rare but dangerous situations override pilot control inputs unless it is switched off. This can interfere with pilots’ longtime training that pulling back on the control yoke raises a plane’s nose, putting the plane into a climb. That means that as a pilot tries to maneuver an airplane, the automated system may be counteracting that pilot’s inputs.

 

“I’m going to investigate how they came to the conclusion that retraining was not necessary, and then obviously we’re going want to look at how foreign countries certify their pilots and retrain them,” DeFazio said.

 

'Nothing on the MCAS'

After the Ethio­pian Airlines crash Sunday, Boeing said it would update flight-control software, provide more training, introduce “enhancements” to external sensors that measure the direction of an aircraft and make changes to how MCAS is activated.

 

But two pilots who attended the meeting with Boeing in November after the Lion Air crash said pilots had suggested that the company take these actions at that time.

 

“Whatever level of training they decided on [before the Lion Air crash], it resulted in an iPad course that I took for less than an hour,” Tajer, the American Airlines pilot, said. “A lot of pilots here at American did that course.”

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