On October 29 2018, Lion Air flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea shortly after take-off, killing all 189 passengers and crew. Less than five months later, Ethiopian Air flight 302 plummeted shortly after departure, killing 157 people. The model at the centre of both crashes was the 737 Max, built by Chicago-based Boeing.

Now, after a six-month hiatus, Boeing’s production of the passenger jets has resumed. Can the flying public, already rattled by the enduring Covid-19 pandemic, feel safe aboard a 737 Max? Government test flights have wrapped up, though the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) still has to analyse data from those flights. If everything goes as planned, however, the aircraft-maker could get the FAA-ordered grounding of 737 Max jets lifted as soon as September 2020, and the airliners could take to the skies with passengers aboard by the end of the year.

But something else has to happen alongside that 737 Max reboot to restore the flying public’s faith in Boeing: an ironclad, non-negotiable commitment to transparency. The US transportation inspector-general recently issued a report laying out how Boeing withheld pivotal information about the 737 Max’s flight control software as the model was undergoing certification from the FAA. Problems with that software, known as the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), were at the centre of both fatal crashes. Investigators said the glitch put the airliners into a sharp dive that could not be stopped by the pilots.

It wasn’t until after the Lion Air crash that the FAA began a detailed review of the MCAS. That marked the first time the FAA was presented with a full picture of how MCAS worked. Boeing began a system revamp, but 737 Max aircraft continued flying. Less than five months later, Ethiopian Air Flight 302 crashed. The 737 Max fleet has been grounded since.

Boeing’s bottom line — and its reputation — have taken a huge hit. Now it must convince the flying public that transparency will be applied to every stage of the development and making of its aircraft. It will have to take a hard look at a company culture that allowed opacity to seep into something as important as the certification process for a new passenger jet model. /July 13 2020

Chicago Tribune

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