Software snags see Boeing stall disaster jet's return to the skies
In the days after a Boeing 737 Max 8 jet plunged into Indonesia's Java Sea last October, company officials said they were moving quickly to update plane software suspected in the crash.
Six months and a second Max 8 disaster in Ethiopia later, Boeing has yet to submit its fix to regulators. Last week, pilots and its airline customers left a Federal Aviation Administration meeting with no idea when the grounded model would fly again. "We've taken off our watches and put the calendars in the drawer," American Airlines pilot Dennis Tajer said.
Fixing the software is proving a difficult task. "Any time you change software code, it's a major issue,'' said Clint Balog, an Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University professor who studies the interaction between humans and computers in planes.
"If you change even one small thing in a code, it can have downstream implications.''
The jet's anti-stall device - known as the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System - has now been implicated in October's Lion Air crash and last month's Ethiopian Airlines disaster, which occurred while the software fix was under way.
An update turns out to be more complicated than Boeing anticipated, both politically and technically. In a video message, Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg said the company had finished its last test flight and was prepared to move forward with certification. The goal, he said, is to make the 737 Max "one of the safest airplanes ever to fly".
His company needs to convince the heavily-scrutinised US Federal Aviation Authority - as well as sceptical international regulators - that the fix is safe and capable of being used in the Max 8 without requiring costly flight-simulator training for pilots, as the company has promised customers.
That could prove tricky in the current environment, said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft consultant and vice president at Teal Group in Virginia.
"I suspect the time spent so far is less about creating optimal software and more about proving to regulators that it's OK," Mr Aboulafia said.
The tradition of non-US aircraft regulators deferring to the FAA's judgment calls is "hanging by a thread. The system now has many agencies who are determined to show that they have independent oversight." (© Bloomberg)