The China Eastern 737 Crash

March 22, 2022

FIRST THINGS FIRST, it’s important to employ my usual post-crash disclaimer: When planes go down, initial speculation is often misguided and wrong. Early clues that appear straightforward and revealing turn out to be complicated and unclear.

All we know for certain is that China Eastern flight 5735 was cruising at 29,000 feet when something went disastrously awry. The jetliner, with 132 people aboard, fell into a high-speed plunge. Radar reports show that it leveled off briefly at around 8,000 feet, began a brief climb, then fell into a second plunge from which it never recovered, disintegrating into hilly terrain near the city of Wuzhou. There were no survivors.

The severity of the plunges, which were tracked by air traffic control radar, together with harrowing security camera footage showing the stricken jet in a vertical dive, offer some of those clues that we need to be careful with. Whatever went wrong, it happened quickly and catastrophically. There was no distress call.

This tells us a lot, but also it tells us nothing. Any number of things is possible, from a bomb to a flight control system somehow gone haywire. One cause being thrown around is “structural failure.” Did some portion of the tail or a stabilizer separate from the aircraft? Perhaps. But if so, why? Design flaw, faulty repair, explosive decompression? There can be layers to these things.

That the descent was temporarily arrested is the most interesting part. It suggests the pilots were able to maintain or regain some semblance of control, at least briefly. This lessens the probability of certain scenarios — a bombing or major structural failure, for example, the results of which tend to be a more consistent sort of plummet. Yet nothing can be ruled out entirely. A friend of mine even came up with a pilot suicide hypothesis that, although extremely unlikely, is nonetheless plausible

The plane was a Boeing 737-800. The -800 is one of the “Next Generation” (NG) 737 variants. It first flew in 1997, and today is one of the most popular jetliners in the world.

The 737-800 is not equipped with the stall avoidance system that led to the 737 MAX crashes a few years ago, but the jet has had a few problems over the years:

In 2005, a group of former Boeing employees filed a lawsuit claiming that some Next Generation 737s had been manufactured with defective parts. These parts, it was contended, may have contributed to the fuselage breakups of a Turkish Airlines 737 outside Amsterdam in 2009, and the nonfatal runway overrun of an American Airlines 737 in Jamaica that same year. The ex-employees lost their case, as well as their appeal. Investigators, including the NTSB, found no link between faulty parts and structural failure.

In 2019, fatigue cracks were discovered in the wing-fuselage attachment sections of approximately five percent of the global 737NG fleet, leading to a series of mandated inspections and repairs. But this applies primarily to older -800s that have exceeded a particular number of flight hours and cycles (takeoffs and landings). The airplane that crashed in China was only seven years-old.

A rudder defect was blamed for at least two 737 disasters in the 1990s, plus a number of nonfatal incidents. These were earlier-generation variants, however, and the plane’s rudder servo system was redesigned.

You might also come across articles highlighting the high number of incidents and accidents involving 737s over the decades. Be wary of how these numbers are presented (usually as raw totals, without meaningful statistical context), keeping in mind that more 737s have been built than any other jet.

And so, there’s nothing at this point to suggest flight 5735 was brought down by a design flaw or potential negligence on the part of the manufacturer. And while I’ve never been much a fan of the 737, it’s not because I consider the plane unsafe. No matter, the wolves are out for Boeing, and have been since the MAX crashes. With the company’s reputation in tatters, this couldn’t have come at a worse time, regardless of who or what is to blame.

“Boeing Faces New Upheaval After Crash of Chinese Airliner,” read a headline in yesterday’s New York Times. “No fault has been found,” the article continues, “but the company, which has been trying to overcome a recent legacy of design and production troubles, is likely to get scrutinized.”

It certainly will be. But let’s maybe not go that route until the facts are in. We live in a time when everyone wants quick and concise answers, I know. But air crash investigations take months, sometimes years. Even then, we don’t always learn the whole story.


NOTES AND WHATNOT:

— China’s domestic airline market is roughly as large as that of the United States. Once much maligned, the country’s aviation safety record has improved considerably over the last two decades and is now considered among the safest. China’s last major accident was a decade ago.

— In the old days, China had only one airline: the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), which was second only to Aeroflot in size. And like Aeroflot, it was eventually broken up, splintering off dozens of smaller independent carriers. One of those was China Eastern. Based in Shanghai, China Eastern is today the country’s second-largest airline, just behind China Southern, with a fleet of some 600 aircraft and a route structure extending to Europe and North America.

— We can thank the security-industrial complex for these furtive glimpses of crashing planes we’d otherwise never see. Pentagon, etc. Now this one.

— Those puffs of smoke visible in the video look to me like engine compressor stalls. Jet engines will not function properly in a vertical dive, effectively hiccuping.

— One upon a time, a plane crash in a foreign country killing 132 people would have been a relatively minor news story. What happened is obviously tragic, but the amount of attention that crashes receive nowadays helps underscore how rare they’ve become.

 

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Twenty Years and Counting

November 12, 2021

WE MADE IT. I had my doubts, but we pulled it off.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the crash of American Airlines flight 587 in New York City. We have now gone twenty full years since the last large-scale crash involving a major U.S. carrier. This is by far the longest such streak ever.

On the sunny morning of November 12th, 2001, American 587, an Airbus A300 bound for the Dominican Republic, lifted off from runway 31L at Kennedy Airport. Seconds into its climb, the flight encountered wake turbulence spun from a Japan Airlines 747 that had departed a few minutes earlier. The wake itself was nothing deadly, but the first officer, Sten Molin, who was at the controls, overreacted, rapidly and repeatedly moving the widebody jet’s rudder from side to side, to maximum deflection. The rudder is a large hinged surface attached to the tail, used to help maintain lateral stability, and Molin was swinging it back and forth in a manner it wasn’t designed for. Planes can take a surprising amount of punishment, but airworthiness standards are not based on applications of such extreme force. In addition, the A300’s rudder controls were designed to be unusually sensitive, meaning that pilot inputs, even at low speeds, could be more severe than intended. In other words, the pilot didn’t realize the levels of stress he was putting on the aircraft. The vigor of his inputs caused the entire tail to fracture and fall off.

Quickly out of control, the plane plunged into the Belle Harbor neighborhood of Queens, a skinny section of Rockaway only a few blocks wide, with ocean on both sides. All 260 passengers and crew were killed, as were five people on the ground. It remains the second-deadliest aviation accident ever on U.S. soil, behind only that of American flight 191 at Chicago, in 1979.

Flight 587 was well known among New York City’s Dominican community. In 1996, merengue star Kinito Mendez paid a sadly foreboding tribute with his song El Avion. “How joyful it could be to go on flight 587,” he sang, immortalizing the popular daily nonstop.

This was a catastrophe to be sure. It was also the last multiple-fatality crash involving a legacy American airline, and the last on U.S. soil with more than 50 fatalities.

To be clear, there have been a number of post-2001 tragedies involving regional carriers and freighters. The worst of these were the Comair (2006) and Colgan Air (2009) crashes, in which 50 and 49 people were killed, respectively. In 2005 a young boy in a car was killed when a Southwest Airlines 737 overran a runway in Chicago, and in 2018 a woman on a Southwest Airlines 737 was killed after being partially ejected through a blown-out cabin window.

What we haven’t seen, however, is the kind of mega-crash that was once brutally routine, year after year. Take a look through the accident archives from 1970s through the 1990s. Seldom would a year go by without recording one or more front-page mishaps, with 100, 200, sometimes 300 (or more) people killed at a time. In the eighteen years prior to November, 2001, and not counting the September 11th attacks, the American legacies, which at the time included names like Pan Am, TWA and Eastern, suffered ten major crashes. The idea that we could span two full decades without such a disaster was once unthinkable.

It’s especially remarkable when you consider there are nearly twice as many planes, carrying twice as many people, as there were in 2001. Since then, the mainline American carriers have safety transported more than twenty billion passengers. Today they operate over four thousand Airbuses and Boeings between them, completing tens of thousands of flights weekly. The streak also takes in those dark years of the early 2000s, when pretty much all of the big carriers were in and out of bankruptcy, fighting for survival. Not to mention the dire challenges of the last twenty months, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Best of times, worst of times. All it would have taken is one screw-up, one tragic mistake. Yet here we are.

When we expand the context globally, the trend is even more astonishing. Between the 1980s and the mid-2000s there were dozens of air disasters worldwide — sometimes five or more in a year. In 1985 alone, twenty-seven major crashes — twenty seven! — killed almost 2,400 people.

How we got here is mainly the result of better training, better technology, and the collaborative efforts of airlines, pilot groups, and regulators. We’ve engineered away what used to be the most common causes of accidents. Yes, we’ve been lucky too, and the lack of a headline tragedy does not mean we should rest on our laurels. Complacency is about the worst response we could have. Air safety is all about being proactive — even a little cynical. Our air traffic control system needs upgrades, our airports need investment. Terrorism and sabotage remain threats, and regulatory loopholes need closing. The saga of the 737 MAX has been a cautionary window into just how fortunate we’ve been, and exposed some glaring weaknesses.

Duly noted, but a congratulatory moment is, for today, well earned. This isn’t a minor story.

Almost nobody in the media is paying attention, trust me. Crashes, not an absence of them, make the news. Call it the silent anniversary, but there’s no overstating it: we have just passed one of the most significant milestones in commercial aviation history.

 

U.S. Airline Accidents With 50 or More Fatalities, by Year

1970: 1
1971: 1
1972: 1
1973: 2
1974: 4
1975: 1
1976: 0
1977: 2
1978: 1
1979: 2
TOTAL 1970s : 15

1980: 0
1981: 0
1982: 2
1983: 0
1984: 0
1985: 3
1986: 0
1987: 1
1988: 1
1989: 2
TOTAL 1980s: 9

1990: 0
1991: 0
1992: 0
1993: 0
1994: 2
1995: 1
1996: 2
1997: 0
1998: 0
1999: 0
TOTAL 1990s: 6

2000: 1
2001: 5

Since 2001: 0

 

History’s Ten Worst Disasters Involving U.S. Carriers

1. 1977. Two Boeing 747s, operated by Pan Am and KLM, collide on a foggy runway at Tenerife, in Spain’s Canary Islands killing 583 people, 335 of them on the Pan Am plane. The KLM jet departed without permission and struck the Pan Am jet as it taxied along the same runway. Confusion over instructions and a blockage of radio transmissions contributed to the crash.

2. 1979. As an American Airlines DC-10 lifts from the runway at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, an engine detaches and seriously damages the wing. Before its crew can make sense of the situation, the plane rolls 90 degrees and disintegrates in a fireball beyond the runway, killing 273. The engine pylon design and airline maintenance procedures are faulted by investigators, and all DC-10s are temporarily grounded.

3. 1988. Two Libyan agents are later held responsible for planting a bomb aboard Pan American flight 103, which blows up in the night sky over Lockerbie, Scotland, killing 270 people, including 11 on the ground.

4. 2001. American Airlines 587 goes down outside JFK airport in New York killing 265.

5. 1985.  An Arrow Air DC-8 crashes after takeoff from Gander, Newfoundland, killing 256 people, most of them U.S. military personnel returning from Egypt. The disaster is blamed on ice contamination of the jet’s wings.

6. 1996. Shortly after departure, a fuel tank explosion destroys TWA flight 800, a 747 carrying 230 passengers and crew from JFK to Paris. There are no survivors.

7. 1995. A navigational error causes American Airlines flight 965, bound from Miami, to Cali, Colombia, to wander off course during arrival. The 757 hits a mountain 25 miles from its destination. There are four survivors of the plane’s 163 occupants.

8. 1987. A Northwest Airlines MD-80 crashes on takeoff at Detroit. The pilots had neglected to properly set the flaps and slats, and for reasons unknown the jet’s warning system failed to alert them. A four year-old girl was the only survivor among the 155 passengers and crew.

9. 1982. A Pan Am 727 goes down seconds after departing from New Orleans, Louisiana. There are 153 fatalities, including eight people on the ground. The plane had taken off into a rare and deadly microburst — a localized, high-power windshear produced by a violent thunderstorm.

10. 1978. A Pacific Southwest Airlines (PSA) 727 collides over San Diego with a small private plane. A total of 143 people die including seven on the ground.

 

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COVID Casualties

Predictions, Observations, and Farewells Amidst Coronavirus.

What will air travel look like post-COVID? It’s still too soon to know. There are many moving parts to this. It’s happening globally, at different speeds, across a diverse range of cultures and economies and market environments. Things will be in flux for a long time, with no defined end. 

Much has already happened, however, and there are signs and signals as to what may lay ahead. Airlines have fallen, trends are emerging, protocols are being set. Below is a look at what we’ve seen, and some thoughts on what comes next, both for airlines and their customers.

This post will be updated periodically as events occur, and as the author’s aggravation levels rise and fall.

 

September 1, 2021. Mask Mania.

If, like me, you’re a fan of the commercial aviation streams on Instagram, you’ve seen them: photo after photo after photo of airline workers cheerfully mugging in face masks. I’ve had it with this.

Yes, everyone who flies needs to put a mask on. This is understood and accepted, as is any airline’s attempt to make the policy clear through advertising, promotional materials, on-board safety videos, and so forth. In other words, treat it seriously. What drives me crazy are the constant attempts to cute-ify the wearing of masks. Because, in fact, there’s nothing cute about it. Masks are a physical symptom of a society, and an airline industry, in pretty serious distress. This isn’t something to giggle at, normalize, or make light of, and we should want them to go away as soon as possible (ironically, by wearing them when and where it makes sense to).

It’s not just aviation galleries. The entire internet is awash in mask selfies. These pictures seem wrong to me, and often feel sanctimonious. Posting a photo with a mask on is a little like posting a photo with a bag over your head. Why do it unless, for some reason of policy or regulation, you have to? Nine times in ten there appears to be no reason the person couldn’t have slipped the damn thing off for the sake of a picture — especially in shots taken outdoors.

Or is that the whole point? If so, it’s not a helpful one. Turning masks into political statements or fetish objects doesn’t keep anyone safer or halt the spread of coronavirus.

 

August 19, 2021. Covering Up.

Earlier this week, TSA announced an extension of its passenger mask mandate. Flyers will now be required to wear approved face masks aboard all U.S. commercial flights until at least January 18th, 2022. Considering current case rates and the high transmissibility of the COVID-19 delta variant, this was neither unexpected nor unreasonable. And so my reaction is little more than a shrug.

The extension is unlikely to affect passenger volumes in any measurable way. Love them or hate them, masks are simply not a part of most travelers’ go/no-go criteria. They do, however, add to the levels of aggravation and frustration in the cabin, and the big issue for airlines now is how the ruling might affect levels of so-called air rage. Instances of passenger violence and belligerent behavior have risen sharply, and masks are a part of that.

I have no big issue with masks on planes in a general sense. One thing I wish, however, is that carriers weren’t so blindly aggressive in their enforcement. I’ve seen flight attendants literally scream at passengers because their masks momentarily slipped beneath their noses. Stepping onto a jetliner, the first words you hear are no longer “hello,” or “welcome aboard,” but a stern, “Sir, your mask needs to be all the way over your nose!” A few days ago I witnessed a flight attendant interrupt and berate a customer because he dared to partially remove his mask in order to ask a question about a connecting flight. (If he can remove his mask to enjoy a meal, why can’t he remove it for two seconds to ask a question?) To say nothing of the endless barrage of mask-related public address announcements that begin well before boarding and don’t end until you’re at baggage claim five hours later.

This sort of combative, absolute zero-tolerance approach is not in the spirit of the rule, and does nothing to keep people safer. All it does is create an atmosphere of intimidation and fear in a setting where tension levels already are high.

 

May 19, 2021. Thresholds.

Daily passenger volume in the U.S. is now about 70 percent of 2019 levels. Airlines are reporting positive cash flow, if not quite profit, and many flights are full. Passenger confidence is returning and there’s the smell of normal in the air.

Of course, a full flight isn’t necessarily a profitable one. It’s easy to fill a plane with cheap tickets, and it’s low-yield leisure traffic that, for the moment, is driving the recovery. Business traffic is what airlines count on, and here any improvement has been agonizingly slow to materialize. It will come, eventually; not to the levels we saw before, but enough to return airlines to the black. Another asterisk is geography. Southern and middle-of-the-country airports are bustling, while places like Boston and San Francisco lag behind. The differences are driven by local economies, culture, even politics. Regardless, almost all of the signs are positive, at least for domestic markets.

The international front, on the other hand, remains a mess. With vaccinations sporadic or even nonexistent in many countries, COVID cases are increasing across much of the world, resulting in paralyzed economies, lockdowns and border closures. Just as worryingly, even “open” countries pose a challenge. What’s lacking is any sort of consistency in entry protocols. Some countries ask only for a vaccination certificate. Others require a vaccination certificate and a so-called PCR test (which can be time-consuming and expensive to get). Others ask for a certificate and the easier kind of COVID test. Others want only one (or both) of these tests, and don’t care about your vax status. Some mandate quarantines on top (or instead) of all this, while others don’t. And so on. The rules are a tangle and constantly being revised.

Just this week the European Union announced a proposal to begin allowing in travelers from select countries, including the United States, without testing or quarantine — just a vaccination. While this is potentially great news, when it might actually happen is unclear. For the time being, they’re not making it easy. To enter Italy, just as one example, a passenger must first pass a PCR test within 72 hours of departure time. He or she must then take a second test at the airport. In case that’s not enough, the passenger is then required to take a third test on arrival in Italy. Three tests, not counting the one you need to return to the United States. No exclusions for vaccination status.

Travelers are not gonna book holidays or business trips when the requirements are this onerous or subject to change on short notice. The world needs groups like IATA, A4A, and USTA to press for more streamlined and standardized procedures.


January 22, 2021. Nowhere Fast.

Newly sworn in, President Joe Biden is unveiling a flurry of policy initiative to stem the spread of you-known-what. Among these is a rule that incoming international passengers must self-quarantine for ten days. This comes only days after a requirement that arriving passengers present a negative COVID-19 test result prior boarding any flight to the United States. There’s no provision for taking a second test after arrival in lieu of quarantine, neither is there an exception for passengers who are vaccinated. Whatever impact these measures may or may not have on COVID-19 cases, they’ll certainly be devastating for airlines and their workers, and will all but crush the small amount of international travel that has begun to rebound — most of it in the Latin America and Caribbean markets.

The U.S. Travel Association lauded the testing requirement, describing it as “the key to reopening international travel.” However, the group is understandably less enthusiastic about the quarantine. “We believe a mandatory quarantine requirement for international travelers could be extremely difficult to enforce—and unnecessary,” the organization said in a press release, “in light of required testing and the many other protections now in place.”

Everything is just a disaster.

 

January 14, 2021. Norwegian Would.

All right, where were we? It’s been a while. Which is maybe understandable, since so little has changed. Or, maybe more accurately, everything and nothing has changed.

This week, discount carrier Norwegian Air announced that it’s giving up its long-haul network. The airline will downsize from 140 planes to about 50, all of them short-haul Boeing 737s, sending its fleet of more than thirty 787s back to the lessors. The carrier will “return to its routes,” so to speak, focusing on low-cost intra-European flying.

This is no surprise. Norwegian never made money on its long-haul services. The long-haul LCC (low-cost carrier) model is exceptionally challenging under even the best of circumstances, never mind in the middle of a crushing global crisis. Once COVID hit, Norwegian never stood a chance.

History — both recent and distant — is littered with the carcasses of LCCs that tried and failed to make it in transoceanic markets. Laker, Tower Air, AirAsia X, WOW, Joon. And now Norwegian. The track record is a dismal one, yet it always seems like someone is willing to try. Indeed, as we speak, Lufthansa is looking into launching a long-haul LCC tentatively named “Ocean.”

 

October 15, 2020. Bordering on Madness.

The recovery, if we can call it that, has been handicapped by the recent spike in COVID-19 cases — and, in no small part, by a media that will not cease its fear-mongering. Yet the numbers are improving, little by little. In the U.S., daily passenger totals are closing in on the one million mark. Looking long term, it’s no longer the domestic front that worries me. Even with a shattered economy and a frightened populace, a return to normalcy is possible within a year or two. What scares me to death, however, is what’s going on internationally.

Across the world, borders remain closed or heavily restricted, with absurdly onerous entry requirements. Countries with few or no coronavirus cases remain closed off even to other countries with few or no cases. And those letting visitors in typically require expensive and logistically complicated “PCR” testing prior to arrival. That’s in addition to secondary testing after landing and, in some cases, a lengthy quarantine. It defies logic, but not having COVID-19 is no longer an adequate criteria to visit many countries. To enter Thailand, for instance, a traveler has to undergo three COVID-19 tests and quarantine for two weeks, after which point you are permitted to stay only in government-monitored hotels, with your whereabouts tracked daily. This in a nation that earns 20 percent of its annual GDP through tourism.

Why simple, on-the-spot instant testing hasn’t become an acceptable standard for entry I can’t understand. But it hasn’t. By and large there have been very few efforts toward developing a rational or reasonable means of reopening borders. Instead we have heavy-handed policies that make any return of tourism or business travel all but impossible, and will further decimate the many industries that support and rely on global travel. That includes airlines, more and more of whom are headed to the brink or beyond.

 

September 2, 2020. Boarding School.

TSA has been tracking the number of passenger boardings at U.S. airports. To the surprise of many, we’ve been seeing daily numbers in excess of 800,000. That’s close to 40 percent of what we saw a year ago on the same days.

On the one hand that’s a spectacular and encouraging statistic, especially with most states only partially reopened, and with an economy off the rails. But looking at it more closely leaves me less sanguine than many of my peers. What I see, rather than a sudden lurch to normalcy, is a limited number of people jumping to take advantage of low fares. Although 40 percent of passengers have returned, 40 percent of revenues have not. Cheap tickets to domestic vacation spots will help fill TSA lines, sure. But looking down the road — especially for the legacy carriers, which rely heavily on international and business traffic — this is hardly a recipe for success.

It’s a positive sign, don’t get me wrong, but the real test begins next week, after Labor Day, when summertime leisure flyers return to work (or to their Zoom meetings). Will boardings continue to rise, or will they plateau and taper off? This will also be the moment when the legacies need to begin separating themselves from their low-cost counterparts. And for that, they’ll need those high-yield business flyers to start coming back, and overseas markets to begin reopening. Until then, “40 percent of normal” doesn’t quite mean what it seems.

 

August 6, 2020. Branson’s Blues.

I wonder what the record is for the most number of airlines going bankrupt in a six-month span. The post-Deregulation period was pretty brutal, but that was spread over two or three years, from 1979 through 1982. The early 1990s were another dark time, with Eastern and Pan Am going under. Never, though, have we seen such carnage in such a brief amount of time.

Earlier this week, Virgin Atlantic became the latest victim of the COVID panic, filing for bankruptcy protection in both American and British courts. Virgin joins Thai, Avianca, LATAM, and several other major carriers (see earlier entries below) victimized by the collapse in global travel. Virgin was especially hard hit because a high percentage of its revenues comes from routes between London and the United States, all of which have been scaled back significantly or canceled outright. More than 3,000 employees have been laid off. Co-owner Richard Branson was angling for a bailout, and offered up his private Caribbean island as collateral. It wasn’t enough.

This is actually the second Virgin franchise to hit the skids. Virgin Australia Airlines, co-founded by Branson twenty years ago, filed for bankruptcy back in April.

 

July 19, 2020. Going Dutch.

I survived the curse of July 17th, and find myself in Amsterdam the following morning.

Subdued, is how I’d describe it here. On a normal midsummer weekend, for better or worse, the central part of Amsterdam would be a virtual wall of tourists. On a midsummer weekend in 2020, however, it’s predominantly locals. Looks more like February than July. But otherwise routine: shops and restaurants are open, people are milling freely. And almost nobody has a mask on. The only place I saw masks was at the airport, where it looked about 50/50.

Meanwhile in America.

 

July 16, 2020. The List Gets Smaller.

Less than two weeks after I wrote about Qantas’s early retirement of the 747 (see the installment below), British Airways has announced it too will cease all 747 flying, effective immediately. This will leave Lufthansa as the only 747 launch customer still operating the jet in scheduled service — assuming it doesn’t follow suit.

Every day brings more and more good news.

I flew in the upper deck of a British Airways 747 once, way back in 1987, from Heathrow to Nairobi. It was an old -200 model with the spiral staircase. Sitting upstairs in a 747 was always special — a private, hangar-shaped mini-cabin distinctly separate from the rest of the aircraft, with its own lavatories and galley. And who couldn’t love those sidewall storage lockers? You were three full stories above the ground, and the view through the windows gave you a sense of the 747’s size. Parked at the gate, you’d be looking over the rooftops of many terminals.

 

July 3, 2020. Decline and Fall.

A lot has been made about carriers — Emirates in particular — having mothballed their A380 fleets. What’s sadder is the worldwide grounding of the 747. Only a handful are currently in service, and regardless of how or when this all pans out, few will take to the air again. History’s most influential jetliner becomes just another casualty of the hideous global panic touched off by coronavirus. More than anything else in aviation, the 747 deserved a more dignified end.

Later this month, Qantas will say farewell to its last remaining 747. The sendoff will include a hangar commemoration for employees and a series of sold-out scenic flights. KLM’s retirement took place in April, more than a year ahead of schedule. That leaves British Airways and Lufthansa as the largest operators. Their fleets sit idle at the moment, and may or may not reenter service. Each of these carriers had a phase-out plan already in place, but COVID-19 has changed everything.

All four of these airlines were among the 747’s launch customers, and have (or had) operated the aircraft uninterrupted for nearly fifty years, beginning with the -100 variant in 1970.

For what it’s worth, I did spot an Air China 747-8 at Kennedy Airport the other day. There’s an irony in there somewhere.

 

July 1, 2020. Going South.

Let’s welcome Aeromexico to the Chapter 11 bankruptcy list. Established in 1934, the carrier operates an all-Boeing fleet of 60 aircraft.

Depressingly, if somewhat predictably, it’s the older and more historic airlines that are biting the dust faster than the newcomers and LCCs.

 

June 23, 2020. Political Masking.

After the 2001 attacks, it was mostly people on the right who bought into the hype and fear; who saw terrorists around every corner and were willing to sign off on things like the Patriot Act, TSA, the Iraq War, and so forth. Left-leaning people resisted. This time, it’s left-leaning people who are the more fearful and pessimistic, while those on the right are advocating for a softer, more laissez-faire approach.

Both crises are similarly sinister in the way they they’ve warped people’s thinking and behavior, but they’ve attracted opposite crowds. Why? I suspect it’s because people who lean right are more naturally drawn to responses involving power and conflict; going after enemies, etc — all the things that came into play after 9/11. This particular crisis, on the other hand, centers on concepts like compassion and “saving people.” Thus it has galvanized that mindset instead of the more reactionary one.

Regardless of the reasons, the more this becomes politicized into a left/right conflict, the longer it’s likely to drag on. Often unfairly, people are being put into two camps. Those in favor of harsh quarantines are Democrats. Those in favor of easing them and opening the economy are pro-Trump. This prejudice extends to the wearing of masks. I live in West Somerville, Massachusetts, one of the most progressive neighborhoods in America. Mask compliance is virtually 100 percent, whether indoors and outdoors. It’s common to see people wearing masks even in isolation, well apart from others: sitting alone in a park, in their yards, or on their porches. Anyone who shows up maskless is immediately pigeonholed as a Trump supporter, regardless of their actual affiliation. Masks aren’t merely a practical tool against the virus; they’re are also a signal and a symbol. The crisis has become a social movement, a cause, and political sentiment is absolutely part of it.

Politicizing COVID discourages people from thinking clearly or freely about what’s happening. Instead you’re assigned a “side” and expected to follow along. Never before has the nation needed to be more united around a cause, and instead we’re being wedged apart — on an issue that requires tough decision-making and bravery, not partisanship. Nonsense like this could postpone any meaningful recovery until after the election. For some, I imagine that’s the intent.

 

June 14, 2020. Creep.

Masks. Social distancing. Remember when taking off your shoes at airport security was just a “temporary” measure put in place after Richard Reid attempted to ignite his sneakers on a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001? Remember when the liquids and gels limits were a “temporary” restriction that came about after the London bomb plot in 2006? We have a habit of growing acclimated to even the most time-wasting inconveniences, long after they cease making sense. And rarely do the regulators or policy-makers enjoy undoing what they’ve done. It’s always a lot harder to rescind a rule than it was to put that rule in place.

Just saying.

 

May 26, 2020. Dominoes.

The newest addition to the 2020 bankruptcy flying circus is LATAM. Crippled by lockdowns and global quarantines, the carrier has filed for Chapter 11 protection. By far the largest airline in South America, LATAM traces its origins to the founding of LAN Chile in 1929. It was formed eight years ago when the LAN group, with operations mostly in Chile, Peru and Ecuador, joined forces with TAM of Brazil. The airline flies passenger and cargo services to 30 countries with a fleet of approximately 300 aircraft, including Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. LATAM is 20 percent owned by Delta Air Lines, with Qatar Airways controlling another ten percent.

 

May 19, 2020. Coast to Coast.

This past weekend I flew from New York to Los Angeles and back. The plane was about half full in both directions. That’s a hundred people, give or take, on a route that has been heavily consolidated (seven or eight daily flights reduced to one or two). It felt good to be back in the seat, though as happened last time I was left a little shaken by the spectacle of two of the world’s busiest airports almost utterly void of people.

The captain and I discussed books, travel, and airline history. I don’t think we mentioned coronavirus more than a couple of times. Like me he’s a bit of an airline trivia buff — a highly unusual trait among pilots, believe it or not — which provided some pleasant distraction.

If you haven’t flown in a while, brace yourself for a whole new onslaught of public address announcements. As if the PA cacophony wasn’t obnoxious and nerve-wracking enough before COVID; it’s been taken to the next level. Curbside to curbside, it’s blah blah blah masks, blah blah blah social distancing, blah blah blah aircraft cleaning, blah blah blah in accordance with the CDC, blah blah blah for the safety of crew and passengers. Boarding and deplaning are now longer and more complicated affairs, with every step of the way accompanied by some noisy and patronizing announcement.

I understand that passengers take comfort in an airline’s efforts to keep them safe. This is important. It’s also important not to scare them half to death or drive them crazy.

 

May 18, 2020. The Hits Keep Coming.

Colombia’s Avianca and Thai Airways are the latest major carriers to declare bankruptcy.

Avianca is the second-oldest airline in the world, and celebrated its 100th birthday this past December. Imagine making it through the Great Depression, World War II, and every other crisis to have come and gone over the last century, only to get knocked out by COVID in fewer than 90 days.

Thai, grounded since late March, dates to 1960 and operates a fleet of approximately 80 aircraft. The airline had been floundering for years until coronavirus broke its back.

Both companies hope to reorganize and resume flying. Thai is government-owned, giving it some hope, but could still go the way of South African (see below) if a bailout isn’t forthcoming.


May 8, 2020. That Didn’t Take Long.

Forty-eight hours, give or take. See my update below on temperature checks at airports. Just today Frontier Airlines became the first U.S. airline to require the infrared fever-screening of passengers. If your reading is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, you cannot travel.

It’s just a short matter of time before the other carriers follow suit, and at some point TSA (or a whole new agency) will take control of the operation, setting up checks at a centralized location at or near the security checkpoint. Just a “temporary measure,” of course. Sure.

And that’s the scary part. Twenty years after September 11th and we’re still doing liquid confiscations and taking our shoes off. Nobody can really explain why. Is it crazy to think that twenty years from now we’ll still be wearing masks and having our temperatures checked?

More lines to stand in, temperature scans, mandatory masks, no onboard service, higher fares, scared passengers… I’d say the airlines are just about screwed.

 

May 7, 2020. Normal Nothing.

If I hear the phrase “new normal” one more time, I’m going to need medication. I understand that certain measures are necessary and helpful under the circumstances. One thing they are not, however, and should never be, is normal. Nothing about this is normal. Yet there are elements of society, both cultural and political, that appear troublingly eager to make a lot of what we’re doing permanent.

Other terms and phrases that have worn out their welcome include “abundance of caution,” “Zoom,” and “front lines.” Did you know that supermarket cashiers are now called “Front line food distribution workers.”

 

May 6, 2020. Grounded.

Several readers have asked if I’ve been flying. The answer is yes and no. Mostly no. In mid-March I worked a four-day trip to Ghana. Since then, the only thing I’ve done was a simple domestic out-and-back one day about two weeks ago. I bid and received normal schedules for April and May, but every assignment was quickly canceled.

Like many pilots, I’m effectively being paid to sit home. I realize there are far worse fates, but almost nothing about it has been enjoyable. We’re protected through the end of the summer. After that, who knows. Best case is that I’m looking at a significant pay reduction in the fall. Worst case… I’d rather not talk about it. I spent almost six years out of work after 9/11. The thought of having to go through that again is too much.

To repeat something I brought up in an earlier post: What a lot of people don’t realize is that for pilots, should you find yourself laid off, or if your airline goes out of business, you cannot simply slide over to another airline and pick up where you left off. The way airline seniority systems work, there is no sideways transfer of benefits or salary. If you move to a different company, you begin again at the bottom, at probationary pay and benefits, regardless of how much experience you have. You lose everything. So any threat to our companies makes us nervous.

And for any near the bottom of any seniority list, disaster is coming. Thousands of those pilots are about to lose their jobs, possibly for years.

 

May 5, 2020. On the Horizon.

Whats that in my crystal ball? It’s masks. Several carriers now require passengers and crews to wear face coverings. Don’t be startled if regulators step in and make them mandatory. And whether it’s the law or not, they won’t be going away. Expect many passengers to keep wearing them long after the COVID crisis subsides.

And coming soon to a checkpoint near you: temperature checks. You often see these machines when passing through immigration at airports overseas. I have a feeling you’ll be seeing them in the U.S. as well, giving you the infrared once-over before you’re allowed to board. This is great news, because if passengers want anything, it’s another line to stand in.

Overseeing these new measures will be the Transportation Health Administration (THA), to be formed early next year by President Biden.

That last one is facetious. Right?

 

May 3, 2020. Let’s Catastrophize.

You know what would really suck right now for a U.S. carrier? An accident. A crash.

On our side is the fact that airlines have slashed their timetables more than 90 percent, vastly decreasing the likelihood of a disaster. Still, and much as I hate saying it, we’re overdue for one. There hasn’t been a major crash involving a mainline U.S. carrier in almost twenty years — by far the longest such streak in aviation history. Carriers are in dire straits as it is. A mishap could put one under. Airline workers are under a lot of stress right now. It’s important we keep our heads in the game.

 

April 26, 2020. Knockout Number Two: Virgin Australia.

Virgin Australia, the second-largest carrier Down Under, has gone into receivership. The company, co-founded by Richard Branson as Virgin Blue twenty years ago, operated close to a hundred aircraft to over 50 cities throughout Australia, Asia, and the United States. On April 20th the airline entered voluntary administration and filed for bankruptcy. Supposedly a couple of Chinese banks are eyeing VA’s assets with plans to resuscitate the brand, but details are unclear. For now, Virgin Australia becomes the second of what we might call “major” airlines to be punched out by the COVID panic. Others will follow.

 

April 10, 2020. Knockout Number One: South African Airways.

South African Airways has ceased operations after 86 years. The company had been struggling for some time, and in early April the South African government announced it would cut off any further assistance, forcing the airline close its doors and and lay off all remaining staff. This is a very depressing one. South African Airways was one of the world’s “classic” legacy carriers. In the 1970s and 1980s, its 707s, 747s, and 747SPs helped pioneer ultra long-haul flying (albeit during the apartheid years, when airspace bans often forced its planes to take circuitous routings). Its demise is no less sad than the fates that befell Swissair, Sabena, and some of the other great airlines. Gone too is the carrier’s legendary radio callsign: Springbok. Its “flying springbok” logo from 1971, pictured below, was one of the all-time best.

I flew South African Airways three times, aboard 747, 737, A330 and A320 aircraft, on routes between Johannesburg and New York, Windhoek, Lusaka and Victoria Falls.

There’s talk of a new national carrier emerging from the ashes. Chances are it’ll be given some awful-sounding name like “Sunjet.com,” a low-budget paint job and some goofy-sounding callsign.

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The 737 MAX

UPDATE: November 19, 2020

Two years after the crashes of Lion Air flight 510 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, the Boeing 737 MAX has been cleared to reenter service. Its twice deadly stall-avoidance system has been redesigned and pilot training protocols modified. FAA chief Steve Dickson gave the formal go-ahead on Wednesday afternoon, permitting U.S. carriers to once again operate the aircraft in scheduled service. Foreign regulators are expected to follow suit. American Airlines say it will begin phasing its MAX jets back into service as soon as December. United and Southwest will do so early in 2021. Some predicted the plane would never fly again. They were wrong. The MAX is back.

My feelings are mixed:

Is the 737 MAX safe, now that it’s been upgraded and tested out the wazoo? Absolutely. Will passengers trust the jet enough to fly on it? Probably, yes. Most people have little idea or concern about what airplane model they’re stepping onto, and I doubt that will change. The DC-10 and the Comet recovered with similarly scandalous legacies. The 737 will too.

Does that mean it’s a good design, and that Boeing can be forgiven for developing the decrepit corporate culture that led to this mess? And can the company be excused for having forgone the 797 concept years ago in order to push out more 737 variants instead? Heck no.

What they needed to do is not build the damn thing in the first place. As previously discussed on this site, the MAX is the ultimate monsterization of the 737 platform. A plane designed in the 1960s as a regional jet was pushed and pushed and pushed into roles it was never intended for. The “Frankenplane,” as I call it, was the result. It’s cramped, noisy, has a miserably uncomfortable cockpit, and can’t match the performance of its closest competitors — or, especially, of the plane it effectively replaces, the 757.

Such are the times. We don’t get spiffy new airplanes anymore. We get add-ons, variants, knockoffs.

 

UPDATE: December 29, 2019

Air travel has never been safer. This we can’t really argue. How we reached this point, however, and how we might improve upon it, is open to some debate. “Getting to this level wasn’t easy,” I said not long ago during a radio interview. “And is owed chiefly to three things. The first two are better pilot training and better technologies.”

So far, so good. But what about the third one? “Thirdly,” I said, “we have the seldom-acknowledged collaborative efforts of the airline industry and regulators.”

And that’s true, I suppose. Until it’s not.

Sure, the FAA and the airlines have a vested interest in keeping passengers alive. The stakes are enormous for all parties involved. In the past I’ve cited different examples of collaborative successes: the mandating of certain cockpit equipment, the establishment of proactive substance abuse programs, the tightening of pilot rest requirements, and so on. But this partnership only only works to a point. When the culture goes rotten and the checks and balances fail, the results can be catastrophic. The 737 MAX debacle is a perfect illustration of this.

For a deeper understanding of how, I recommend the recent New Yorker story, “After the Crash,” by Alec MacGillis. This is maybe the best exploration of the MAX saga that I’ve seen to date — worlds better than William Langeweische’s foul analysis that ran in the New York Times Magazine in September. It’s a sobering look into how the FAA and Boeing failed one another in certifying the MAX. (And how ironic that the grand-neice of none other than Ralph Nader was a passenger on the doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight?)

It’s also a sad indictment of what’s become of Boeing’s corporate culture since its acquisition of McDonnell Douglas. The company today is just another corporate entity whose masters see nothing but the bottom line. The many engineers, systems designers and pilots, whose talents were, for generations, the heart and soul of what made Boeing special, have been cast aside or ignored. Indeed, what this whole mess really comes down to is Boeing’s stubbornness and lack of vision: how, rather take the time and care to come up with a new airplane, it took a 55 year-old design and made a monster out of it.

What Boeing should do is the one thing it almost certainly won’t do: say goodbye to the 737. Cut its losses and pull the plug on a plane that should have been put to pasture a long time ago. Then pool its resources, bring those engineers and pilots back into the loop where they belong, and build an all-new, high-performing 200-seater.

Meanwhile, on and on it goes. How wrong I was. What I predicted would be fixed and forgotten in a matter of weeks is now in its ninth month of crisis. Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg was forced out last week. The planes remain grounded. Lawsuits are pending.


UPDATE: October 25, 2019

For months now I’ve avoided publishing any updates on the 737 MAX saga. Things have spun in so many different directions that I wouldn’t know where to dig in. The media, both big and small, has done a surprisingly good job with the story — and all of its various substories — and there hasn’t been much to add, from a pilot’s perspective, that I didn’t already say in my early installments.

This week, though, we’ve seen a couple of big developments. First, Indonesian authorities released their final report on the crash of Lion Air flight 510, the disaster that touched off the whole mess. Here’s a decent summary from the BBC. The findings echo much what William Langewiesche wrote in his scathing Times story a few weeks ago, throwing a portion of the blame on the flight crew and faulty maintenance.

The investigators cite nine — nine! — separate failures, both human and mechanical, that led to the crash. Although this spreads the blame around, it does not absolve Boeing. The BBC reporter nails it with this one paragraph: As Boeing’s chief executive Dennis Muilenburg has repeatedly stated, there was a chain of events. But at the heart of that chain was MCAS — a control system that the pilots didn’t know about, and which was vulnerable to a single sensor failure.

And there’s still the Ethiopian crash, the dynamics of which were somewhat different (see below).

Boeing, meanwhile, might at last be closing in on a solution. The beleaguered planemaker is moving forward with a suite of software and training upgrades that it believes will get the MAX back in the air soon. You can see a bullet-point rundown here. What “soon” might be is still anyone’s guess. I expected the plane to be flying again by now, and for the controversy to have long since died away. That hasn’t happened, and the repercussions for Boeing cannot be overstated. The company has taken a huge hit to its bottom line, as well as its reputation.

And here’s the part we hate to ask but need to: why did the 737 MAX need to exist in the first place? Were these catastrophes, on some level, the inevitable result of Boeing’s decades-long obsession with its 737 platform — its determination to keep the production line going, variant after variant, seemingly forever?

Instead of starting from scratch with a new airframe, Boeing took what was conceived in the 1960s as a regional jet, and has pushed and pushed and pushed it — bigger and bigger engines, fancier avionics, MCAS — into roles it was never intended for. Five decades and ten variants later, the MAX is a monsterized hybrid of a thing, a plane that wants, and needs to be something that it’s not: all muscle and power and advanced technology, jammed into the framework of a fifty year-old design. Call it a software failure, or call it bad corporate strategy and stubbornness.

The MAX will fly again, safely. Boeing has invested far too much money and effort to abandon the program. But here’s hoping this is the end. You won’t see it any reports, but what happened in Africa and Indonesia is, maybe, fate’s way of telling Boeing that the time has come to move on.

UPDATE: April 13, 2019

What a mess. Boeing is getting knocked around by everyone from members of Congress to late-night comedians. The MAX’s certification program is under scrutiny, airlines are canceling orders, and passengers everywhere are scared. The FAA is facing accusations that it took far too long to order the MAX’s grounding (after numerous other countries had already done so), and that it basically permitted Boeing to self-certify an unsafe aircraft.

We keep hearing, too, about what a horrible black mark this is not merely against Boeing, but against American aviation’s place in the world. We are no longer the global leader in air safety, no longer the “gold standard,” whatever that means exactly, as several articles have described it. This is maybe just another example of the weird phenomenon known as American exceptionalism, but each time I hear it, I keep going back to the DC-10 fiasco in the 1970s.

In 1974, in one of the most horrific air disasters of all time, a THY (Turkish Airlines) DC-10 crashed after takeoff from Orly Airport outside Paris, killing 346 people. The accident was traced to a faulty cargo door design. (The same door had nearly caused the crash of an American Airlines DC-10 two years earlier.) McDonnell Douglas had hurriedly designed a plane with a door that it knew was defective; then, in the aftermath of Paris, tried to cover the whole thing up. It was reckless, even criminal. Then, in 1979, American flight 191, also a DC-10, went down at Chicago-O’Hare, killing 273 — to this day the deadliest air crash ever on U.S. soil — after an engine detached on takeoff. Investigators blamed improper maintenance procedures (including use of a forklift to raise the engine and its pylon), and then found pylon cracks in at least six other DC-10s, causing the entire fleet to be grounded for 37 days. The NTSB also cited design flaws in the engine pylon and wing slats, quality control problems at McDonnell Douglas, and “deficiencies in the surveillance and reporting procedures of the FAA.”

That’s two of history’s ten deadliest air crashes, complete with design defects, a cover-up, and 619 dead people. And don’t forget the 737 itself has a checkered past, going back to the rudder problems that caused the crash of USAir flight 427 in 1994 (and likely the crash of United flight 585 in 1991). Yet the DC-10, the 737, and America’s aviation prestige along with them, have persevered. If we survived those scandals we can probably manage this. I have a feeling that a year from now this saga will be mostly forgotten. Boeing and its stock price will recover, the MAX will be up and flying again, and on and on we go. This is how it happens.

There’s also a lot being made of the FAA’s more or less outsourcing aircraft certification to Boeing. This is frustrating, and ironic, because air travel has never been safer, and it’s partly because, not in spite of, the close relationship and collaborative efforts between regulators, airlines, manufacturers, pilot groups, and so on. (A good example is the self-reporting program between pilots and FAA, which has been very successful and has kept dangerous trends from being driven underground.) Bear in mind how much these parties stand to lose should a tragedy occur. A crash can destroy an airline outright. It’s in the interest of all these entities to play things as safely as possible.

Did something go wrong in the 737 program? Are Boeing and the FAA jointly responsible? Probably. But I don’t believe anybody was intentionally reckless. That’s an important distinction, and for the most part the relationships between industry and regulators has been a productive one. You can’t say that about banking, perhaps, but in aviation it seems to work. The remarkable safety record we’ve enjoyed over the past twenty years bears that out, absolutely.

For the airline passenger, these can seem like scary times. Air crashes, perhaps more than any other type of catastrophe, have a way of haunting the public’s consciousness, particularly when the causes are mysterious. My best advice, maybe, is to turn off the news, take a step back, and try to look at this through a wider lens. The fact is, Lion Air and Ethiopian notwithstanding, air travel has never been safer than it is today. Two fatal crashes in five months is tragic, but in decades past it wasn’t unusual to see ten, fifteen, or even twenty air disasters worldwide in a given year. Nowadays, two or more is downright unusual. Here in the United States there hasn’t been a large-scale fatal crash involving a mainline carrier in nearly twenty years — an absolutely astonishing statistic. There are far more planes, carrying far more passengers, than ever before, yet the accident rate is a fraction of what it once was.


UPDATE: April 6, 2019

This just makes you shake your head.

What seems to be the case, based on analysis of the voice and data recorders from the doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, is that the pilots did, as they should have, engage the plane’s pitch trim disconnect switches in a frantic attempt to regain control after a malfunctioning MCAS system forced the plane’s nose toward the ground. This pair of switches, on the center console near the thrust levers, killed power to the entire automatic pitch trim system, including MCAS, and should have allowed the pilots to maintain a normal flightpath using manual trim and elevator. Manual trim is applied by turning a large wheel mounted to the side of that same center console. Elevator is controlled by moving the control column forward or aft.

Yet they did not, could not, regain control. The reason, many now believe, is a design quirk of the 737 — an idiosyncrasy that reveals itself in only the rarest of circumstances, and that few 737 pilots are aware of. That is, when the plane’s stabilizers are acting to push the nose down, and the control column is simultaneously pulled aft, a sort of aerodynamic lockout forms: airflow forces on the stabilizers effectively paralyze them, making them impossible to move manually.

Aboard flight 302, the scenario goes like this: Commands of the faulty MCAS are causing the automatic trim system to push the nose down. The pilots, trying to arrest this descent, are pulling aft on the control column. The trim forces are stronger than the control column forces, which is why pulling back on the column has no effect. But now, with power to the trim system shut off, they should be able to lift the nose by manually by rotating the trim wheel aft, relieving that unwanted nose-down push. But the wheel won’t move. Believing the manual trim is itself broken, the pilots then reengage the auto-trim. MCAS then kicks in again, pushing the nose down even further. What’s worse, as the plane’s speed increases, the lockout effect intensifies. And so, with every passing second it becomes more and more difficult to recover.

The correct course of action would be to relax pressure on the control column, perhaps to the point of pushing the nose down even further. This will free the stabilizers of the aerodynamic weirdness that is paralyzing them, and allow the trim wheel to move, realigning the stabilizers to a proper and safe position. For the pilots, though, such a move would be completely counterintuitive. Instead, they do what any pilots would be expected to do under the circumstances. Turns out it’s the wrong thing, but they have no way of knowing.

It’s possible that the pilots of Lion Air flight 610 faced exactly the same situation, with the same result.

Apparently, pilots of older-generation 737s — long before there was MCAS — were aware of the lockout potential, and some were trained accordingly. (I flew the “classic” 737-200, briefly, about twenty years ago, but have no memory of it one way or the other.) However, as an obscure phenomenon that no pilot was likely to ever encounter, it was eventually forgotten as the 737 line evolved, to the point where no mention of it appears in the manuals of later variants.

 

UPDATE: March 29, 2019

ON MARCH 10th, Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302, a Boeing 737 MAX bound for Nairobi, crashed after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing 157 people from more than thirty countries. Five months earlier, 189 people perished after Lion Air flight JT610 went down near Jakarta, Indonesia, under eerily similar circumstances. Both planes were brand new 737 MAX jets. Both crashed shortly after takeoff following a loss of control.

Although findings from the voice and data recorders pulled from the Ethiopian wreckage haven’t been released yet, it’s all but assumed that flight succumbed to the same flight control malfunction that brought down Lion Air. The 737 MAX has a deadly design problem, and Boeing needs to fix it. In the meantime, all MAX jets remain grounded worldwide.

The culprit is something called MCAS, which stands for Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, a system that adjusts control feel as the plane’s nose pitches upward, effectively nudging it downward.

MCAS operates in the background, transparently and automatically — there’s no on or off switch, per se — and only during a very narrow window of the jet’s flight envelope. This is not something that occurs in normal, day-to-day operation, but certification requires it for those occasions when, for whatever reason, the plane reaches unusually steep climb angles. To raise a plane’s nose, the pilot pulls back on the control column. As the nose pitches further and further upward, the control forces required to maintain this action are supposed to become heavier. This helps keep pilots, and/or the autopilot, from inadvertently stalling the plane — that is, exceeding what we call the “critical angle of attack,” at which point the wings run out of lift and the plane ceases to fly. On the 737 MAX, however, certain aerodynamic factors, including the placement of its very powerful engines, result in control forces actually becoming lighter as it approaches the point of stall. Because of this the plane would not meet certification standards. And so MCAS was engineered in to properly adjust the feel.

Thus there’s a certain beauty to MCAS — provided it works correctly. What’s happening, apparently, is that faulty data is being fed to MCAS by the plane’s angle of attack indicator — a small, wedge-shaped sensor near the plane’s nose that helps warn pilots of an encroaching aerodynamic stall. An impending stall is sensed when there isn’t one, triggering the plane’s stabilizer trim — stabilizers are the wing-like horizontal surfaces beneath the tail — to force the nose down. This sets up a battle of sorts between the pilots and the trim system until the plane becomes uncontrollable and crashes.

What leaves us stymied, though, is the fact that any MCAS commands, faulty or not, can be overridden quickly through a pair of disconnect switches. Why the Lion Air pilots failed to engage these switches is unclear, but unaware of the system’s defect in the first place, we can easily envision a scenario in which they became overwhelmed, unable to figure out in time what the plane was doing and how to correct it. From that point forward, however, things were different. “Though it appears there’s a design flaw that Boeing will need to fix as soon as possible,” I wrote in November,“passengers can take comfort in knowing that every MAX pilot is now acutely aware of this potential problem, and is prepared deal with it.”

Or so it seemed. With the Lion Air crash fresh on any MAX pilot’s mind, why did the Ethiopian pilots not immediately disconnect the trim system? Did a disconnect somehow not work? Was the crew so inundated by a cascade of alarms, warnings, and erratic aircraft behavior that they failed to recognize what was happening? Or, was the problem something else completely? This is the most perplexing part of this whole unfolding drama.

While we wait for the black box results, Boeing this week revealed a suite of hardware and software tweaks that it claims will rectify the issue. This includes incorporation of a second angle of attack indicator, and an alerting system to warn pilots of a disagreement between the two.

The largest MAX operators in the U.S. are American Airlines, Southwest and United. Other customers include Alaska Airlines, Air China, Norwegian, FlyDubai, China Eastern and China Southern. The type is most easily recognize by its 787-style scalloped engine nacelles, which earlier 737s do not have.

Founded in 1945, Ethiopian Airlines is the largest carrier in Africa. Westerners hear “Ethiopia” and tend to make certain, unfortunate associations, but this is company with a proud history and a very good safety record. It flies a state-of-the art fleet, including the Boeing 787 and A350, on routes across four continents. Its training department, the Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy, has been training pilots for 55 years. Ethiopian’s pilots are distinguished by their handsome, olive green uniforms.

The captain of the doomed flight ET302, Yared Getachew, was a graduate of the highly competitive Ethiopian Airlines Aviation Academy, and had more than 8,000 flight hours — a respectable total. “Yared was a great person and a great pilot. Well prepared,” a former Ethiopian Airlines training captain told me.

The first officer, on the other hand, had a mere two-hundred hours. Airline training is intensive, and as I’ve written in the past, the raw number of hours in a pilot’s logbook isn’t always a good indicator of skill or talent. Nonetheless, if indeed that number is correct (it’s unclear if this refers to his total flight time, or his number of hours in the 737 MAX), that’s pretty astounding. By comparison, the typical new-hire at a U.S. major carrier has somewhere on the order of 5,000 hours. Whether the first officer’s lack of experience had anything to do with the accident, however, is another matter.

 

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