Pilots for U.S. airlines submitted several complaints about the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft and voiced concerns directly with Boeing executives months before the same model crashed in Ethiopia, killing 157 people, including 18 Canadians.
The union representing U.S. airline pilots met with Boeing executives last November in Fort Worth, Texas, to discuss concerns over an anti-stall system in Boeing’s bestselling MAX 8 aircraft, the Washington Post reports.
The meeting followed closely on the heels of the Lion Air tragedy, when a MAX 8 aircraft crashed into the ocean off Indonesia shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 people.
Pilots were upset that Boeing failed to disclose the MAX 8 was equipped with new software, known as the Maneuvering 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.
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Dennis Tajer, a 737 captain and spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association, said Boeing executives admitted they hadn’t told pilots about the system because they didn’t want to “inundate” them with information.
“They said, ‘Look, we didn’t include it because we have a lot of people flying on this and we didn’t want to inundate you with information,’” Tajer told the Post.
“I’m certain I did say, ‘Well that’s not acceptable,’” he said.
A Boeing spokesman denied any executive made the statement. After the Lion Air crash, Boeing issued a safety bulletin reminding pilots how to handle erroneous data from a key sensor known as the “angle of attack” sensors.
Larry Vance, an aviation consultant and former Transportation Safety Board investigator, said he believes Boeing didn’t tell pilots because it was deemed a “minor” change to the aircraft.
“I don’t think [Boeing] ever anticipated that this could run away like it did,” he said. “I think it was a basic oversight, saying, ‘I don’t think the pilots need to know this.’”
Questions about the safety of the MAX and the MCAS system have swirled following two deadly crashes in just five months.
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In the months leading up to the Ethiopia disaster, at least five complaints were made in October and November, about issues with the aircraft’s autopilot and the plane tilting down shortly after takeoff. The complaints were first reported by The Dallas Morning News.
“I think it is unconscionable that a manufacturer, the FAA, and the airlines would have pilots flying an airplane without adequately training, or even providing available resources and sufficient documentation to understand the highly complex systems that differentiate this aircraft from prior models,” one pilot wrote about the lack of instructions regarding the MCAS system.
Another pilot wrote: “I am left to wonder: What else don’t I know? The Flight Manual is inadequate and almost criminally insufficient.”
The complaints echo claims made in lawsuits filed by family members of victims in the Lion Air crash, who allege Boeing failed to disclose the MCAS system to pilots.
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.”
Meanwhile, Federal Transport Marc Garneau told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday there have been no reports from Canadian pilots encountering difficulty with the 737 MAX 8’s anti-stall system.
“We took the initiative after [the Lion Air crash] of doing more than came from Boeing and the FAA,” Garneau said. “We decided to put some additional training and some additional flight procedures to make sure we address, comprehensively, what a pilot might have to do if in exactly a similar situation as the Lion Air aircraft.”
“Our airlines, our pilots and associations have told us that that has worked well.”
A spokesperson for the Air Canada Pilots Association declined to answer questions about complaints around the MCAS system.
Garneau, who initially refused requests to ground the MAX jets, said the decision to ban the aircraft from Canadian airspace was the result of “new data” received by Canadian officials on Wednesday morning that appears to show similarities between that crash and the one over the weekend.
For Vance, he maintains that the MAX 8 is safe to fly and is confident in the training of Canadian pilots.
“I don’t diminish the fact that something needs to happen here,” he said. “But if I had a ticket on one of those airplanes this afternoon with an Air Canada crew, would I go and get on it? Absolutely I would.”
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