Why Do Boeing and the FAA Still Deny a Possible Systemic 737 MAX Problem?

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If, instead of two fatal crashes in less than five months of the new Boeing Co. (NYSE: BA) 737s in Indonesia and Ethiopia, the crashes had occurred in Chicago or Dallas-Fort Worth, would the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have grounded all models of the 737 MAX from operating in the United States? There’s little question that had Sunday’s crash in Ethiopia of a 737 MAX 8 that killed 157 people would have grounded all U.S.-operated models of the 737 MAX by later the same day.

That’s the conclusion aircraft industry analyst Jon Ostrower attributes to “senior U.S. industry officials and aviation safety experts.” The FAA’s reluctance to ground the planes is “stark divergence given that aviation authorities in more than 30 countries have already grounded the planes.”

It is true that the cause of Sunday’s crash is still unknown, but the similarities between that event and the October 29 crash of a 737 MAX 8 in Indonesia that killed 189 passengers and crew would typically be sufficient to make the global aviation industry to act unanimously.

The FAA, in a statement issued Tuesday evening, said, “Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” Is the FAA right and are all the other aviation agencies wrong?

There has been no final resolution yet regarding the crash in Indonesia, but Boeing has been preparing a software fix to the plane’s onboard stall-prevention system, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). As Ostrower points out in this article, a re-engined 737 (later dubbed the 737 MAX), was Boeing’s answer to a new Airbus plane, the A320neo, and was developed as a series of compromises that allowed Boeing to “fit 12 gallons into a 10-gallon jug.”

The larger engines on the 737 MAX create more lift for the plane, forcing its nose up. Under certain conditions that added lift creates a greater risk of stalling. To counteract that, Boeing’s MCAS would automatically bring the nose down. About a week following the October crash in Indonesia, Boeing issued a safety bulletin to airlines that such an event can result in a steep dive or a crash even when the crew is flying manually and do not expect the automated system to take control of the aircraft.

Since then the company and the FAA have been working on a fix that will begin getting installed on the 350 or so 737 MAX planes that Boeing already has delivered.

To repeat the original question, if the FAA and Boeing have known at least since last October’s fatal crash that the MCAS is faulty and now a second crash seems to follow the same script, why is it not in the public interest to ground the planes for a few weeks until the fix can be applied?

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