The recently revealed microprocessor flaw in the computer of Boeing's 737 MAX 8 aircraft has contributed to the further delay of the plane's return to service, pushing the earliest the plane could be certified to the very last weeks of the year, assuming something else doesn't come to light in the intervening months to push its return to service back even further.
MAX 8 Recertification Delayed Until at Least End of the Year
The newly reported concerns raised by pilots working with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about Boeing's 737 MAX 8 computer system--where an overloaded microprocessor chip could lead to it becoming overloaded and unresponsive in an emergency, causing the plane to experience 'runaway stabilizer trim' and thus sending it into a nosedive--has extended the delay in getting the airplane certified for commercial air travel through the rest of the year, according to a new report by CNBC.
“We’re expecting a September time frame for a full software package to fix both MCAS and this new issue,” a Boeing official said. “We believe additional items will be remedied by a software fix.”
It will take a couple of months for the FAA to approve the software fixes, and the regulator has absolutely no incentive to speed up the process. The agency was widely criticized from all quarters back in March for being among the very last aviation regulatory bodies to call for the plane's grounding with many accusing the company of a too-cozy relationship with America's largest aerospace company that was obfuscating their responsibility to the public.
Almost certainly conscious of these charges, they appear determined to make sure that they leave no rivet or connection untested and are putting the 737 MAX 8 through every imaginable stress to identify any issue that could cause another crash. Another crash of a 737 MAX 8 for whatever reason after the FAA gives its approval for the plane to return to commercial operations would cause incalculable harm to the agency's reputation, so this delay is likely only one of many more to come and will become a much bigger problem for Boeing than it looks.
Boeing's 737 MAX 8 Increasingly Becoming the Company's Albatross
The consequences of Boeing's design failures with the 737 MAX 8 is increasingly becoming existential. Any engineering project must assume a certain threshold for risk, knowing that you cannot build anything that is guaranteed never to fail. Every single Airbus aircraft has some chance of falling out of the sky and killing 100s of people. None of Airbus' aircraft are under this level of scrutiny, however, and if they were put under the same kinds of tests that the 737 MAX 8 is going through now, they'd likely fail as well.
And this is the problem for Boeing right now because regulators have every incentive in the world to never recertify the 737 MAX 8. After two crashes in under six months, no one in the world outside of Boeing would accuse the FAA of being overly zealous in its safety inspections. Any damage to the bottom lines of the airlines from the continued cancellation of flights caused by the perpetual grounding of these aircraft will fall squarely at the feet of Boeing, not the FAA. Boeing is the one who built the shoddy plane in the first place and got everyone in the world to buy it. The FAA didn't do that.
Right now, American Airlines is trying to come up with all sorts of ways to convince people that the 737 MAX 8's in their fleets will be safe to fly once the FAA recertifies it, proposing that the best way to do that is by--are you ready for this?--having their executives fly on a 737 MAX 8 before asking their customers to do so. This is the best they can come up with because the reputation of this aircraft is so thoroughly destroyed that even Boeing's executives are suggesting that they completely rebrand the plane.
Boeing's backlog is full of orders for 737 MAX 8s that it has yet to build and which they have not been paid for. How much of Boeing's stock price is based in large part on the projected revenue from those orders, which amounts to tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars over the next 10 to 15 years? What if all those orders started getting canceled? What happens to Boeing's stock price then?
Who Wants to Be the FAA Inspector Signing-Off on the 737 MAX 8's Recertification?
For FAA administrators and safety inspectors, recertifying the 737 MAX 8 has absolutely no upside to it and a complete chasm on the downside for both the agency and the actual inspectors themselves, both in terms of its credibility as well as a degree of moral culpability. No matter what they do, there will always be a non-zero probability that they will miss something that they should have caught.
After the plane has already crashed twice and multiple reports have emerged of Boeing's resistance to retraining pilots or to providing adequate information to safely fly the plane, Boeing is essentially asking the FAA to go back out on an already-proven-to-be tenuous limb for the sake of Boeing's bottom line. The last time Boeing asked the FAA to do this, the FAA's reputation as the foremost and most-trusted aviation authority in the world was destroyed in just three days.
Even now, Bloomberg has reported that much of the software for the 737 MAX 8 was written by out-sourced consultants in India with no experience in aerospace software engineering who were paid as little as $9 an hour. Boeing and the Indian consulting firm HCL Technologies Ltd. have both said that these engineers had no role in writing the software for the MCAS system. This makes it even worse by essentially broadcasting that other software systems in the plane were developed by out-sourced software engineers with no experience in aerospace software, just not these two systems.
It's not unreasonable to ask what other potential software failures may be lurking in the millions of lines of code, especially if you are the FAA inspector whose approval is the only thing standing between the 737 MAX 8 flying again and it remaining on the ground until after you retire. After all, you will bear responsibility for the lives of everybody on that plane forever afterward in a much more direct way than is normally the case: if the plane crashes again, it will be because you personally said it was safe to fly again and you were wrong.
So, would you want to be the one to green-light the return to service of an aircraft whose software was programmed by grossly-underpaid software engineers when, according to a former Boeing engineer who was part of the 737 MAX 8 development, "“it took many rounds going back and forth because the code was not done correctly”?
No, why on Gaia's green earth would you risk your job, reputation, and own personal emotional and mental well-being approving this plane's return to service? Not when the blame for the loss of life if the plane crashes again--which even on planes not as relatively slapped together as the 737 MAX 8 was is still always possible--will be put squarely on your shoulders.
'Working To Rule' on the 737 MAX 8 Recertification?
It's no longer impossible to imagine that the 737 MAX 8 never sees service again because safety inspectors seem to keep finding reasons to delay its recertification, and with millions of moving parts and millions of lines of code, there will always be something.
Back in January, according to the Wall Street Journal, Boeing and the FAA were in negotiations over proposed fixes to the 737 MAX 8 following the crash of Lion Air flight 610. Boeing pushed back on a lot of the FAA's requested changes and won out in the end, delaying software fixes that are now incredibly relevant following the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302. It isn't known whether those fixes might have prevented the Ethiopian Airlines crash, but the power has definitely shifted considerably from Boeing to the FAA. If the FAA makes a demand for a safety fix, Boeing is not in much of a position to argue the point.
Recently, the FAA has been flexing that particular muscle. A couple of months ago, the recertification was delayed because the FAA raised concerns about the documented safety procedure for the entire 737 line of aircraft. There have been repeated announcements about software updates being ready, only to be withdrawn as more work is needed. Now, the FAA is stress testing microprocessors and blowing them out, causing more delays.
Much of this is unrelated to the MCAS system believed to be responsible for the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes, and because there will always, always be something they could point to in a machine as complex as a commercial aircraft, the FAA could keep doing this forever if they wanted to.
This isn't too dissimilar to a commonly used labor tactic known as "working to rule." This is when workers follow the usually loosely interpreted rules governing their work and responsibilities to its explicit letter. Flexible interpretation of work rules and responsibilities for the sake of efficiency are usually taken for granted, but the rules are what they are, and if workers on an assembly line decide to perform their work exactly as the rules say they should, goodbye productivity. Entire factories can grind to a halt in minutes and workers can just shrug when challenged by superiors by pointing out that they are doing exactly what they were told to do.
It's the kind of thing that can drive a manager to throw their hat on the ground and begin stomping on it in a fit of impotent rage because of its simple and complete ability to shut everything down in a way that can be impossible to challenge. How can you, as a manager, yell and complain when the worker is doing exactly what you told them to do? It doesn't do you any good to say "I didn't mean it like that," that's irrelevant. What you said and what you meant might be different, but what you said is what matters.
In the case of the FAA, their job is to ensure that the 737 MAX 8 is safe to fly. What does this mean for a machine with millions of moving parts and millions of lines of software code--any one of which could cause a failure leading to an unsafe condition, if not a fatal crash? How can the FAA ever make that determination?
They clearly can't, and not just for the MAX 8, but for any commercial aircraft currently flying. Commercial aircraft are just too complicated, especially with limited staff and with limited resources, to make these kinds of assessments in reality. So, if they can't actually guarantee the safety of the aircraft, and we told them that we're going to hold them accountable for assessing the safety of the aircraft, what can the FAA do?
All they can do is check every square centimeter of the aircraft, both physically and digitally, to verify that this part is safe and that part is safe and that one over there needs to be fixed and on and on, effectively keeping the 737 MAX 8 grounded indefinitely.
And who is going to stop them? Weren't we all just yelling at them for not checking to make sure this plane was safe? Aren't they doing exactly what we told them they needed to do?
Raise your hand if you want to take personal responsibility for the safety of the twice-crashed 737 MAX 8 by telling safety inspectors not to worry about checking the rest of the plane, they tested it enough. If the plane ever does crash again, the FAA will kindly direct all complaints and subpoenas from litigation attorneys to you, with a note reminding everyone that the FAA was just about to check the failed part/code in question, but you were the one who told them to stop before they could uncover the flaw that just killed dozens of people.
As for Boeing, are they going to complain to the FAA or to the public that the FAA is being unreasonable and that the 737 MAX 8 is "safe enough"? How sympathetic is anyone going to be to that line of argument? Of course, this is realistically the standard that applies to every single plane in the sky right now; we just don't talk about it that way. On the other hand, every other plane in the sky hasn't suffered from two crashes in less than six months. No one is going to go out on a limb for the 737 MAX 8, so the 737 MAX 8 will stay on the ground as long as the FAA wants to keep it there and it has every incentive in the world to make sure that it never flies again.