Taped conversation shows Boeing execs downplaying importance of absent safety feature on 737 Max

A Boeing 737 Max aircraft.

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A Boeing 737 Max aircraft.
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Boeing

  • Boeing told pilots after its first fatal 737 Max crash that it had sold a safety feature as an optional extra in the planes because many airlines felt it would “confuse” pilots.
  • A Boeing executive told members of the pilots union for American Airlines that most carriers did not buy the angle-of-attack indicator because they would have to train pilots to use it.
  • The investigations into two 737 Max crashes have suggested that better information from the plane’s instruments might have helped the pilots prevent the crash.
  • Boeing defended its decision, arguing that the indicator was not essential for pilot safety. Union representatives said pilots should have the maximum amount of information possible.
  • You can listen to audio of the exchange below.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

After the first fatal crash of one of Boeing’s 737 Max planes, a company executive told concerned pilots that one of the plane’s safety features came only as a paid-for extra because airlines worried that it would “confuse” pilots.

An audio recording of a November meeting between union representatives and Boeing executives, shared with Business Insider, demonstrates that the company was keen to downplay concerns about the 737 Max jet.

At the time of the recording, one 737 Max had gone down – Lion Air’s Flight 610, which crashed into the Java Sea. Five months after that crash, a 737 Max operated by Ethiopian Airlines also crashed.

The executive was telling representatives of the union for American Airlines pilots – the Allied Pilots Association – why it had not installed a system known as an angle-of-attack indicator.

The cockpit of a Boeing 737 Max.

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The cockpit of a Boeing 737 Max.
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Boeing

His argument was that the extra safety measure was not popular with airlines, which did not want to train pilots to use it and thought it might “confuse” them while flying.

He said:

“A lot of airlines don’t want the AOA gauge because the pilot’s not trained to fly with it and they feel as if it could confuse the pilots.

“And they don’t want to spend any training time to train the pilots on how to operate the AOA. I’m comfortable with AOA, I love it, but most of the airlines don’t like it.

“They think it would maybe distract the pilots and confuse them.”

It is not clear from the audio exactly who was speaking. According to The New York Times, Boeing employees at the meeting included Mike Sinnett, a Boeing vice president; Craig Bomben, a Boeing test pilot; and John Moloney, a senior Boeing lobbyist.

Read more: Boeing dismissed fears of a 2nd 737 Max crash when confronted by pilots after the plane’s first disaster, leaked audio reveals

Here is an audio clip of the exchange:

The full audio is at the end of this article.

The angle-of-attack indicator was not installed on either of the 737 Max planes that crashed. Between the two disasters, 346 people were killed.

The indicator displays measurements that show the plane’s orientation in the sky – its angle of attack. This can alert pilots if the plane is pointing in the wrong direction.

Boeing has said in public statements that the system is not necessary to fly the plane safely.

The crash site of the Ethiopia Airlines flight in Ethiopia on March 11.

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The crash site of the Ethiopia Airlines flight in Ethiopia on March 11.
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MICHAEL TEWELDE/AFP/Getty Images

The indicator is also part of a broader safety system that can alert pilots to incorrect readings.

It is used to provide a data feed for a “disagree” light, which is meant to alerts pilots when the two sensors that actually measure a plane’s angle of attack are in conflict.

Without multiple streams of data, the disagree system cannot notice a discrepancy.

Since the crashes, Boeing has acknowledged that it wanted the disagree light to be a standard feature. But when it realized the system relied on an optional component – the angle-of-attack indicator – the company conducted a safety review and decided to leave the plane without this system until the next planned software update.

Read more: American Airlines CEO reveals when he would feel safe flying on the Boeing 737 Max again

Preliminary reports from investigations into the two 737 Max crashes suggested that there were problems with the angle-of-attack sensor readings.

Investigators believe these triggered software on the planes – the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System – to force down the planes’ nose.

Both flights made abrupt descents before crashing. The Lion Air flight ultimately hit the sea, while the Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed into the ground, leaving a crater 32 feet deep and 131 feet long.

Personnel from Indonesia's National Transportation Safety Board examining debris from the downed Lion Air flight at the Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Indonesia, in November.

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Personnel from Indonesia’s National Transportation Safety Board examining debris from the downed Lion Air flight at the Tanjung Priok port in Jakarta, Indonesia, in November.
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Beawiharta/Reuters

After the Lion Air crash, Boeing conducted a review to work out whether the absence of the light was a safety risk. It concluded that it was not.

Following the second crash, Boeing committed to including the disagree light as standard but said it would be incorporated in a way that would not require the angle-of-attack indicator, leaving that feature as optional.

Read more: The FAA is so concerned about the future of Boeing’s 737 Max that it is bringing in NASA and the Air Force to help ensure it is safe to fly again

The Federal Aviation Administration said in May that Boeing had briefed it on the lack of a working alert light in November and that FAA officials considered the issue to be “low risk.”

A man examining a pile of twisted metal gathered by workers during the recovery efforts at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302.

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A man examining a pile of twisted metal gathered by workers during the recovery efforts at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302.
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Jemal Countess/Getty Images

A member of the Allied Pilots Association said in the November meeting with Boeing that American Airlines decided to include the optional angle-of-attack indicator because of pressure from its members.

“By the way, the APA required them to get that,” they said.

But the APA members at the meeting were still critical of Boeing’s communication around the plane’s software and its angle-of-attack system.

“We flat-out deserve to know what is on our airplanes,” one pilot said.

An aerial photo of Boeing airplanes, many of which were grounded 737 Max aircraft, at Boeing Field in Seattle.

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An aerial photo of Boeing airplanes, many of which were grounded 737 Max aircraft, at Boeing Field in Seattle.
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REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

At another point in the exchange, a Boeing representative said he didn’t think a deep understanding of the MCAS software would have prevented a disaster, given the low chance of it malfunctioning.

“I don’t know that understanding this system would’ve changed the outcome on this,” he said.

In response, the union members argued that they wanted more information regardless. They criticized Boeing for not including the system in its training or manuals.

One pilot said this had shaken his previously strong trust in Boeing.

Describing Boeing’s attitude, he said the company seemed to think that for “the average pilot, that’s a little bit too much information for him to understand and be able to comprehend.”

Read more: Boeing acknowledges making a key alert system linked to faulty sensors optional on 737 Max planes

“I have a hard time with that,” he added.

The scene of the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

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The scene of the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
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REUTERS/Tiksa Negeri

The APA said its president, Dan Carey; its vice president, Tim Hamel; its safety committee chairman, Mike Michaelis; and its communications committee chairman, Dennis Tajer, were among those present.

In response to the criticism, a Boeing executive said the company was “looking at” changes it could make to the software to make the disagree light work without the optional angle-of-attack indicator. Six months later, in May, Boeing committed to making that change.

“We are focused on working with pilots, airlines, and global regulators to certify the updates on the Max and provide additional training and education to safely return the planes to flight,” a Boeing spokesman told Business Insider in a statement about the recording.

Carey, the APA president, told Business Insider in a statement that American Airlines pilots had “been pressing Boeing for answers because we owe it to our passengers and the 346 people who lost their lives to do everything we can to prevent another tragedy.”

“Boeing did not treat the 737 Max 8 situation like the emergency it was,” he said.

Full audio of the exchange:

Do you work at Boeing or the FAA, or are you a pilot? Got a tip or a story to share? Contact this reporter via encrypted messaging app Signal at +353 86 335 0386 using a non-work phone, or email her at sbaker@businessinsider.com, or Twitter DM her at @sineadbaker1.