The Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10 and an October crash by Indonesia’s Lion Air killed 346 people have shaken the global aviation community. It has sparked the biggest crisis in decades for the plane manufacturer, Boeing. The two crashes involved 737 MAX 8 and took place in similar circumstances within five months.
Ethiopian Airlines is Africa’s most profitable airline. It has defended its own safety record, training and procedures after the crash on March 10 where 157 people were killed.
Boeing has not commented so far on the crash citing rules set out by the Montreal-based International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) which limit what those involved, other than the airline, say during a crash investigation.
The focus of investigation is on software called Maneuver Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, and the sensors that activate it. MCAS pushes the plane’s nose down if it believes it is ascending at too steep an angle.
An Ethiopian Airlines executive questioned whether Boeing had told pilots enough about this “aggressive” software that pushes a plane’s nose down- one of the main points of investigation into a fatal crash.
“After the crash it came to our attention that the system is aggressive,” Yohannes Hailemariam, vice president for flight operations at Ethiopian, told local reporters speaking in the Amharic language.
If MCAS activates at low altitude, it gives pilots little time to react, Yohannes said. Both crashes happened minutes after take-off. Yohannes noted that Boeing had issued a bulletin to the industry after the Lion Air crash.
“All pilots and operators knew about MCAS after Boeing disclosed that,” he said.
“The bulletin shows procedures for how to stop it when this happens, but it doesn’t have training.”
The airline followed up with computer-based training which took cockpit crew one to two hours, Yohannes said.
Comments by the CEO and vice president of the airline will further fuel a debate over the safety of Boeing’s 737 MAX aircraft.
Yohannes rejected media reports that optional equipment for Boeing 737 MAX planes could have prevented the crash.
Boeing offered airlines an optional indicator to show if two sensors showing the steepness of the ascent – the so-called “angle of attack” sensors – disagreed with each other, which would indicate a faulty sensor.
Some media reports have questioned whether having this installed may have helped the Ethiopian Airlines cockpit crew regain control of flight ET 302.
“When Boeing supplies aircraft there are items which are mandatory for safety and then there are optional items,” he said. “The angle of attack indicator was on the optional list along with the in-flight entertainment system.”
He echoed the words of Norwegian Air which said it had not selected the cockpit light warning of discrepancies between angle of attack sensors for its fleet of 18 MAX 8 aircraft.
“It gives a message of stalling and it takes immediate action which is faster than the action which pilots were briefed to take by Boeing,” said Yohannes, himself a pilot with over 30 years of experience, including flying Boeing’s 777 and 787.
Boeing has already lost about $28 billion from its market share and the MAX — its best selling plane ever — is now grounded. The fate of orders worth more than $500 billion is also in jeopardy.
ORDERS IN DOUBT
- Indonesia’s Garuda likely to cancel a $6 billion order for 49 of the grounded planes.
- Garuda rival Lion Air is also considering with its order – 190 Boeing jets worth $22 billion at list prices. It may dump it.
Teams from three U.S. airlines that own 737 MAX jets were also visiting Boeing’s factory in Renton, Washington over the weekend to review a software upgrade.