SOUTH PORTLAND — After being grounded for 21 months by the Federal Aviation Administration because of a fatal crash in 2018 and then another five months later in 2019, the B737 Max is back. Both Boeing and the FAA pledged to Congress and the flying public that the controversial aircraft would not return to service until numerous problems that contributed to the air disasters were fixed. Are they? The jury is still out, but nevertheless, the Max will return to service later this month.


A Boeing 737 Max jet, piloted by FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson, prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle on Sept. 20. On Dec. 29, American will be the first of four airlines that own the Max to take it back to the air. Elaine Thompson/Associated Press, File

Yes, Boeing has made some improvements to the Max, especially regarding the system that precipitated the two terrible tragedies: the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, or MCAS. This electronic system, which was installed to compensate for radical aerodynamic changes to the original design of the B737, has now been upgraded to include an additional sensor to detect if the aircraft is approaching an aerodynamic stall. Now pilots will be trained in a simulator to fly the aircraft using MCAS. The pilots of the ill-fated Lion Air and Ethiopian Air crashes were not trained how to use it. They were’t even aware that MCAS was installed. As a result, when the system malfunctioned, the pilots had little time, and no clue that MCAS was putting the aircraft into a nosedive that would prove fatal.

A total of 346 people died as a result of Boeing’s faulty and secret system, but the since-terminated CEO of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, still left Boeing with a golden parachute of $62 million. That’s right: No culpability, no criminal charges, just cash.

As longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader said in a November letter to FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson, the FAA has abdicated its responsibility to the flying public by relinquishing its oversight to aircraft manufactures like Boeing. Instead of fulfilling its role to ensure aircraft are safe, the FAA has let corporations like Boeing, now basically “self-certify” their new aircraft. This slippery slope of allowing industry to thrive while passengers die was a result of industry arm twisting where Boeing spent $15 million lobbying Congress in fiscal 2018, according to Business Insider.  This influence on public policy makers resulted in a collaboration between Boeing and the FAA called the Organization Designation Authorization Program, which, Nader says, is making the FAA “safe for Boeing.” One of the red flags in this delegated oversight program is the restricted ability of engineers for Boeing and FAA to communicate with each other to address significant flaws in design, equipment and training.

On Dec. 29, American Airlines will be the first of four airlines that own the Max to take it back to the air, with a run from Miami to New York. Alaska, United and Southwest all have delayed their reintroduction until 2021, perhaps hoping Boeing will fulfill their pledge before congressional committees to be fully transparent on what the problems are with the design and safe operation of the MAX. The prognosis for Boeing to fulfill their pledge is not promising. Boeing has refused to release to the public documents related to design revisions and evaluations, and the FAA has forwarded documents to Congress that have been redacted, infuriating not only Nader (who lost a grand-niece on the Ethiopian flight) but also leading congressional watchdogs U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore.

In response to the dysfunction over aircraft safety between Boeing and the FAA, DeFazio sponsored HR 8408, the Aircraft Certification Reform and Accountability Act. This bill unanimously passed the House on Nov. 17 and is expected to pass the Senate any day now. Foremost among the items that the bill addresses are a requirement “that manufacturers disclose to the FAA certain safety-critical information related to an aircraft.” In other words: no more hidden systems like MCAS being installed on aircraft without training the pilots first, and no more rubber-stamping industry innovations without proper oversight. This bill won’t bring back the lives lost because of corporate greed and government dysfunction; it also won’t fix the MAX, but moving forward, it may prevent other air disasters.

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