The advanced control system on Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 aircraft is coming under renewed scrutiny following two deadly accidents in five months, including the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 people.
Sunday’s crash, which killed 18 Canadians, was the second deadly accident involving a Boeing 737 MAX 8 following the Lion Air crash on Oct. 27, 2018, when a plane plunged into the Java Sea off the coast of Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, killing 189 people.
In both instances, the planes crashed minutes after takeoff and showed unstable vertical speeds before descending quickly.
Safety and airline experts have cautioned against drawing too many comparisons between the crashes until investigators have time to properly probe Sunday’s disaster.
However, questions are being raised about the aircraft’s Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Introduced in 2017 with the 737 Max 8 model, the system is designed to automatically lower the nose of the plane to prevent it from stalling, based on information sent from external sensors.
Several lawsuits filed by family members of victims from the Lion Air crash allege the crash was caused by the defective anti-stall system and Boeing’s defective flight manual and operating procedures, which did not adequately explain the MCAS flight-control system to pilots.
“The subject aircraft’s defective anti-stall system, the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), caused the aircraft’s nose to suddenly, without warning, drop and dive steeply,” read a lawsuit filed on behalf of Dayinta Dyah Anggana, whose 54-year-old mother, Nurul Dyah Ayu Sitharesmi, was among the victims.
The claim for unspecified damages was filed at a court in Cook County, Ill., where Boeing is headquartered. None of the allegations have been proven in court.
A preliminary report into the crash released by Indonesian investigators last November found that the Lion Air pilots repeatedly fought with the automatic system on the Boeing 737 MAX 8 as it pulled the plane’s nose down more than two dozen times.
WATCH: Ethiopia Airlines crash prompts comparisons with Lion Air disaster involving same Boeing aircraft
Data from the flight recorder showed that the pilots repeatedly fought to override an automatic safety system installed in the aircraft before it plunged into the ocean.
The Lion Air cockpit data recorder showed the jet’s airspeed indicator had malfunctioned on its last four flights, though the airline initially said problems with the aircraft had been fixed before it left Jakarta.
Ross Aimer, a former pilot and CEO of Aero Consulting Experts, said the MCAS is now becoming a very hot topic on the new MAX 8 and that it was not fully disclosed to pilots.
“Boeing did not disclose this fairly important addition to the operators,” he said. “When Lion Air crashed, they discovered that the Lion Air pilots had not heard about it — neither did any of the other carriers around the world. And that created a problem.
“Pilots always want to know what exactly ticks in their airplane. And they had no idea about this,” he added.
Paul Bergman, a spokesperson for Boeing, said the company would not comment on the “lawsuits directly.”
“Boeing extends our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the families and loved ones of those onboard Lion Air Flight 610,” he said. “As the investigation continues, Boeing is co-operating fully with the investigating authorities. We won’t comment on the lawsuits directly.”
In November, Boeing issued a safety bulletin reminding pilots how to handle erroneous data from a key sensor known as the “angle of attack” sensors. Air Canada officials said they are “following its recommendations” and monitoring all developments in regards to the safety bulletin. West Jet officials said they received the bulletin and are “following its guidance.”
A lawsuit filed in Seattle, Wash., on behalf of the families of 17 Indonesian passengers alleges Boeing “concealed the new system and minimized the differences between the MAX and other versions of the 737” to improve sales and save money on training for pilots transitioning from older aircraft models.
“The pilots were not given any instruction or warning on how to respond to (a malfunction of MCAS). They were not even aware of MCAS’ existence,” the lawsuit states. “Why the FAA approved flight manuals containing these omissions is baffling.”
The Herrmann Law Group, a personal injury firm based in Seattle, said that Boeing did not include any mention of the new system in the aircraft flight manual and that the “system activates automatically with no notice given to the pilot.”
“Years of experience representing hundreds of victims has revealed a common thread through most air disaster cases,” said attorney Charles Herrmann in a statement. “Generating profit in a fiercely competitive market too often involves cutting safety measures. In this case, Boeing cut training and completely eliminated instructions and warnings on a new system. Pilots didn’t even know it existed. I can’t blame so many pilots for being mad as hell.”
Canada won’t ground MAX 8
Meanwhile, Federal Transport Minister Marc Garneau says Canada will not follow the lead of other countries and order its airlines to ground their Boeing 737 MAX 8.
“It was a sunny day, an experienced pilot, the plane was brand new. But we know little else,” he said. “Flying in this country is one of the safest ways to travel. The statistics very, very clearly prove that.”
Aviation authorities in China, Indonesia and Ethiopia ordered airlines on Monday to ground their Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes, while Cayman Airways said it was temporarily grounding the two Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft it operates.
Air Canada has 24 Boeing 737 MAX 8s, WestJet Airlines Ltd. has 13 and Sunwing Airlines flies four MAX 8s, according to Transport Canada’s civil aircraft register.
Air Canada said its MAX 8 aircraft have performed “excellently” and continue to meet safety and reliability standards.
“We have operated this aircraft type since 2017 and currently have 24 in our fleet,” Isabelle Arthur, a spokesperson with the airline, said in a statement. “These aircraft have performed excellently from a safety, reliability and customer satisfaction perspective.”
Calgary-based WestJet said it is “working with Boeing to ensure the continued safe operation of our MAX fleet,” which includes 13 MAX 8s.
Boeing has said it doesn’t intend to issue any new guidance to its customers and plans to send a technical team to the crash site to help Ethiopian and U.S. investigators.
“We extend our heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board and stand ready to support the Ethiopian Airlines team,” the Chicago-based company said in a statement. “Safety is our No. 1 priority, and we are taking every measure to fully understand all aspects of this accident, working closely with the investigating team and all regulatory authorities involved.”
Ethiopian Airlines has said that investigators have located the plane’s black box of flight data and cockpit voice recorder.
However, an airline official told the Associated Press that the box was partially damaged and “we will see what we can retrieve from it.”
*With a file from Jesse Ferreras