Boeing shunned automation for decades. When the aviation giant finally embraced it, an automated system in the 737 Max kicked off the biggest crisis in its history.

The fallout from two fatal crashes of 737 Max plans put one of the US's biggest companies in its biggest-ever crisis.

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The fallout from two fatal crashes of 737 Max plans put one of the US’s biggest companies in its biggest-ever crisis.
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Mustafa Yalcin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images; Samantha Lee/Business Insider
  • The two Boeing 737 Max plane crashes that killed 346 people have been attributed to a faulty automated system that pilots say they were not aware of.
  • The crashes have sparked a huge crisis for Boeing, causing it to lose billions, face lawsuits, come under Congressional and regulatory scrutiny, lose plane orders, and lose its status as the world’s largest plane maker.
  • There is a cruel irony in Boeing’s crisis, as the company has a reputation for being traditionally less in favor of automated systems than Airbus, its biggest rival.
  • And even though Boeing has used automation for a long time, pilots and experts say the company’s philosophy was always to keep pilots informed and give them ultimate control.
  • “I think why the pilots were understandably so upset with Boeing because, historically, Boeing insisted that they would keep the pilots in the loop,” a former US aircraft crash investigator told Business Insider.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The global aircraft industry is essentially a duopoly – a decades-long transatlantic rivalry between the US’ Boeing and France’s Airbus which, as trends change or one is hit by hardship, have continually overtaken each other to temporarily reign as the biggest in the world.

And over those decades, it has been certain philosophies in design and management that have kept the two distinct. The fundamental difference comes down to how those philosophies cause pilots to fly those planes.

Over history, Boeing was known for embracing pilot control over fully automated systems, while Airbus, its French-headquartered, but pan-European rival, pioneered such technology. Both viewed their strategy as fundamental to safety, ending up with similar safety records as a result.

But now, a new automated system that helped bring down two of Boeing’s 737 Max planes, and pilots’ claims that the company didn’t tell them about that system, have caused the biggest crisis in the manufacturer’s history. It hemorrhaging cash and trying to appease angry airlines and lawmakers, who could use the crashes to change the rules of aviation forever.

When an automated system failed, killing 346 people on two planes, pilots questioned Boeing’s philosophy.

When the first Boeing 737 Max plane crashed in Indonesia in October 2018, killing all 189 people on board, pilots were concerned.

Families of the victims of Lion Air flight JT 610, visit an operations centre to look for personal items of their relatives in October 2018.

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Families of the victims of Lion Air flight JT 610, visit an operations centre to look for personal items of their relatives in October 2018.
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Ulet Ifansasti/Getty Images

They saw news reports and preliminary information from the investigation that noted that a new automated system in the Max planes had misfired, leaving the pilots on board panicked and unable to regain control of the plane.

In the US, pilots from the Allied Pilots Association, the union that represents American Airlines pilots, turned their anger to Boeing executives, saying they had no idea the automated system was on the planes they were flying.

One pilot said: “I would think that there would be a priority of putting explanations of things that could kill you.”

The purpose of the technology – called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS – was, of course, not to kill pilots.

The system was actually designed to help keep the 737 Max level in the air and prevent the plane’s nose from pointing upwards risking engine stalls. It was installed because the 737 Max featured newer, heavier engines than previous 737 models, which had the potential to cause the issue.

Employees walk by the end of a 737 Max aircraft at the Boeing factory in Renton, Washington, US, in March 2019.

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Employees walk by the end of a 737 Max aircraft at the Boeing factory in Renton, Washington, US, in March 2019.
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REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

Boeing then offered assurances that a second crash would not happen, audio from that meeting showed, and said that it had not wanted to “overload the crews with information that’s unnecessary” about the plane.

But then, five months later, a second 737 Max plane crashed in Ethiopia, killing the 157 people onboard

Separate investigations into both crashes found that MCAS malfunctions meant the pilots simply could not control the plane, with the final report into the Lion Air crash finding the pilots tried more than 20 times to stop the plane’s nose pointing down before it crashed into the sea at 450 mph (724.2 kph).

The findings brought representatives for pilots and cabin crew to Congress, where they told lawmakers that Boeing not giving pilots enough information about the MCAS system was the company’s “final fatal mistake.”

Family members of those who died aboard Ethiopian Airlines plane sit with pictures of their loved ones during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in October 2019 as then-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg testified about the crashes.

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Family members of those who died aboard Ethiopian Airlines plane sit with pictures of their loved ones during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing in October 2019 as then-Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg testified about the crashes.
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Win McNamee/Getty Images

Such hearings prompted flight crews to say they didn’t want to fly on the plane anymore, even when it returns to the sky after its updates are approved by global aviation regulators.

The irony is that Boeing’s philosophy was to put the pilot in control

In addition to the wider questions about automation in the industry that the MCAS has raised, a cruel irony has emerged in the aftermath of the crashes: Boeing was known as the planemaker that shunned very powerful automated systems, and trusted the skill of pilots.

An Airbus A350-1000 and a Boeing sign at the 2019 Paris Air Show.

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An Airbus A350-1000 and a Boeing sign at the 2019 Paris Air Show.
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REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

Najmedin Meshkati, an engineering professor at the University of Southern California who studies the role humans play in aviation safety, described the companies as traditionally having “two design philosophies.”

“The level of control they give to the pilot and transparency – they’re totally different. That’s why I was unpleasantly surprised when the Max crashes happened. I thought Boeing even violated its own kudos and design philosophy.”

An Ethiopian police officer walks past debris of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash in March 2019.

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An Ethiopian police officer walks past debris of the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 plane crash in March 2019.
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REUTERS/Baz Ratner

And Christine Negroni, an air-safety specialist and the author of “The Crash Detectives,” a book about aviation disasters, said “the great irony is that it was Boeing who held back and had this idea that ‘We feel the human in control is the best way to go about it. That’s our philosophy.'”

Boeing has embraced automation for years, but the MCAS system appears to have been a fundamental break in its philosophy

To suggest that Boeing has not embraced automation would be deeply misleading. The company uses it across its fleet, and has done so for decades. The two plane makers have similar safety records, and aviation has only become safer since new technology has been introduced.

But experts say the key difference is this idea of pilot communication, as well as how had long wanted pilots to ultimately be in control.

Now, they say, MCAS appears to have totally overthrown that commitment.

Alan Diehl, a former investigator with both the US’s National Transportation Safety Board and FAA, told Business Insider: “I think why the pilots were understandably so upset with Boeing because, historically, Boeing insisted that they would keep the pilots in the loop.”

Pilots and aviation industry experts describe the fundamental difference between Boeing and Airbus as being one about pilot control.

“Boeing always wanted to keep the pilots more in the loop,” Diehl said.

“I think so many of the pilots felt they were betrayed by Boeing when they found out about the MCAS because they didn’t know really what the function was, or how it worked, and most importantly how to shut it off, or when to shut it off.”

Indeed, with the Max, Boeing maintains that pilots were able to override the automatic actions and disable MCAS with manual switches. But pilots say they were unaware of the system itself, never mind how to disable it.

Diehl noted that “automation has crept in to Boeing products” over time. He described MCAS as “a new level of, I don’t want to say dis-information, but lack of information. “

“It was almost a total information blackout,” he said.

Chris Clearfield, founder of risk management consulting firm System Logic, a licensed pilot, and co-author of “Meltdown,” a book about handling catastrophes, noted that “both Airbus and Boeing planes have an incredible amount of automation.”

“Both are really fundamentally highly automated aircraft. I think the difference is that Boeing’s design philosophy has always been that the pilots have direct access to the flight controls. Airbus has always put a lot of filtering between that.”

Undelivered Boeing 737 Max planes are parked idly in a Boeing property in Seattle, Washington, on August 13, 2019.

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Undelivered Boeing 737 Max planes are parked idly in a Boeing property in Seattle, Washington, on August 13, 2019.
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David Ryder/Getty Images

Mark Goodrich, an aviation lawyer and former aeronautical engineer and test pilot who focuses on automation, said that Boeing and Airbus’ philosophies had been coming together long before MCAS.

“The philosophies were dramatically different. But they’re not dramatically different anymore. And they have come together. Boeing took a very traditional approach for a long time,” he said.

In comparison, Airbus is known for being all-in with automation

Airbus’ A320 plane, unveiled in the 1980s, was the first plane to have two highly influential pieces of technology – called fly-by-wire and flight envelope protection – still used to automate parts of flight.

Fly-by-wire – a system that allows pilots to input plane commands into a computer instead of a using mechanical levers or dials – and flight envelope protection, which stops pilots from pushing the plane beyond certain control limits, have now become more or less standard in the industry.

But Michel Guerard, Airbus’ vice president for product safety, told Business Insider that when Airbus introduced them “you had people who didn’t like it.”

“There was an argument about this in the early days,” he said.

An Airbus assembly plant in Seville, southern Spain.

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An Airbus assembly plant in Seville, southern Spain.
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Reuters

But now versions of fly-by-wire and flight envelope protection can be found on Boeing planes, and Guerard said that most planes now, including from Boeing and Airbus, “pretty much look the same in terms of automation. “

What people think about when it comes to the difference between Airbus and Boeing, then, comes from those early approaches, Guerard said.

“The story about our philosophy being different from Boeing,” he said, “comes from the days when we had the A320, which was the first fly-by-wire and flight envelope protected aircraft.”

But even as Boeing embraced some automated systems, it is still holding back more than Airbus.

Fly-by-wire on Boeing planes still has physical levers and gives feedback to the pilot that feel like older, manual controls.

And when it comes to flight envelope protection, for example, Boeing can pilots can “push the envelope” – bringing the plane beyond those limits with a lot of effort.

Guerard describes the envelope system as born from the idea that there a range of controls and actions that are safe to do during a flight, and a range of controls and actions that are not.

A worker fits a part to a wing of a partially-finished passenger plane of the A320 series in an assembly hall at the Airbus factory on July 14, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.

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A worker fits a part to a wing of a partially-finished passenger plane of the A320 series in an assembly hall at the Airbus factory on July 14, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany.
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Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Pilots have control within those limits, but cannot totally override the plane’s authority to go beyond them, because there is apparently no safe reason for them to do so: “The crew is not permitted to crash the aircraft, basically.”

Both approaches have fans and detractors in the industry, and both have been credited for both saving lives and contributing to accidents.

John Lauber, the former Chief Product Safety Officer at Airbus, told Business Insider that much criticism of automated technology in planes is “nonsense,” and that Airbus data shows that “each succeeding generation of aircraft is safer than its predecessors” as a result of it.

But, he said, automation poses its own challenges for safety if not designed and implemented properly, or if pilots are not properly trained. “But the safety record clearly shows that properly done cockpit automation significantly enhances the safety of aircraft operations,” he said.

The 737 Max crisis has allowed Airbus to regain the title of the world’s biggest planemaker. But the boost to Airbus has been minimal thanks to the nature of nature of the industry, where planes are ordered years in advance.

Boeing is fixing the Max, but whatever it does now could prove its philosophy has changed for good.

Boeing has spent months working on updates to the MCAS system, so it will take information from more than one plane sensor and can only activate once during flight. Boeing also reversed its position after long arguing that simulator training was not necessary for pilots.

The updates mean giving pilots more control, changing MCAS so it “will never provide more input than the pilot can counteract using the control column alone.” Boeing says it will make it one of the safest-ever plane.

Investigators look at the debris from the crashed Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max plane in March 2019.

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Investigators look at the debris from the crashed Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 Max plane in March 2019.
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Jemal Countess/Getty Images

Boeing is also reflecting more widely on the very way it builds planes, establishing a committee to review its design and development of planes, including reexamining how the company designs cockpits and expects pilots to interact with controls.

Peter Pedraza, a Boeing spokesman, said it has resulted in “immediate action” to strengthen safety.

But the fallout from the Max crashes may ultimately be overshadowed by a new crisis for Boeing, as countries around the world lock down their borders and demand for travel plunges due to the coronavirus, threatening the world’s airlines and potentially causing them to cancel orders or stop placing new ones.

The virus, combined with its existing Max problems, has already pushed Boeing to offer voluntary layoffs to employees and note that it is in “uncharted waters.”

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun at a ceremony at the White House in January 2020.

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Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun at a ceremony at the White House in January 2020.
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MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Boeing could also take this moment as a basis to turn to automation more than ever before.

In November, when he was still the company’s chairman, Dave Calhoun, Boeing’s new CEO, said: “We are going to have to ultimately almost – almost – make these planes fly on their own.”