Boeing's safety update to 737 Max was reportedly delayed due to government shutdown

Wall Street Journal reports Boeing's software update was scheduled for January, then delayed due to shutdown

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 15, 2019 7:00AM (EDT)

 (Getty/Stephen Brashear)
(Getty/Stephen Brashear)

Boeing was working on a safety software update after one of its 737 Max 8 planes crashed in October but the effort was delayed by five weeks due to the partial government shutdown, the Wall Street Journal reported.

After a second 737 Max 8 plane crashed on a flight from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Nairobi, Kenya, on Sunday, Boeing said it had been working on a safety feature designed to stabilize a plane in the event of a stall “for several months.”

The Journal reported that the update was due to be completed in early January.

Instead, discussions between the company and the Federal Aviation Administration dragged on over “differences of opinion about technical and engineering issues,” and then the partial shutdown that dragged from December into February delayed the fix for five weeks.

The FAA determined that the delay was “acceptable” because it concluded that there was “no imminent safety threat.”

Despite the FAA’s conclusion, the Washington Post reported that pilots had long voiced concerns about the plane’s systems, which they said limited their control of the plane. The Post noted there were at least two instances when planes had pitched downward against the pilots’ inputs, which was the issue the update was intended to fix.

On Sunday, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed minutes after takeoff, killing all 157 people on board. It was the second 737 Max 8 crash in just five months. Investigators have not determined what caused the crash, but a New York Times report on Thursday noted that the erratic trajectory of the flight appears similar to that of the 737 Max 8 that crashed in Indonesia last October.

Countries in Asia and Europe quickly began to ground all 737 Max 8 jets after the Ethiopia Airlines crash but the U.S. government and the FAA demurred.

“Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft,” the agency said in a statement Tuesday. “Nor have other civil aviation authorities provided data to us that would warrant action.”

On Wednesday, President Trump reversed course and announced that all Boeing 737 Max 8 planes would be grounded.

“Any plane currently in the air will go to its destination and thereafter be grounded until further notice,” Trump announced. “The safety of the American people, and all people, is our paramount concern.” The Washington Post reported that the move “surprised” FAA officials.

The delay and reversal underscored many of the issues experts have raised about Trump staffing his administration with industry lobbyists and personal friends. The current FAA acting administrator, Daniel Elwell, is a former pilot who spent years as a top lobbyist for the major U.S. airlines. Furthermore, Elwell only holds the position because Trump was unable to appoint his longtime personal pilot, John Dunkin, to the post. Trump has not named anyone else to fill the job permanently, and the position has been vacant since January 2018. In fact, the top three spots at the FAA are filled with officials working on an acting basis.

That is only one of the 150 Senate-confirmed positions for which Trump has not selected a nominee.

Elwell denied that the government shutdown caused a delay to the software fix Boeing was working on, but told the Post that the software fix was crucial to resolving the safety concerns about the 737 Max 8.

“We’re hopeful the final touches and tests and evaluation of the software amendment, or the software addition to the Max, will be ready within a couple months,” he said, adding that he is “confident that the patch is going to be an enhancement to the system and make it far less likely that crews, if faced with that very anomalous situation, far less likely to have to deal with that particular malfunction.”

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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