Boeing took a lot of shortcuts to get its B737 Max certified in record time. The FAA allowed Boeing to hire its own engineers to certify its compliance with certification requirements. Lawmakers allowed the FAA to do that. Result? Plane crashes waiting to happen.
By Hasan Soedjono
Many lives were lost. Even more could have been lost if nothing was done after the two fatal Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes. Why, then, am I looking at the economic, financial, commercial, and accounting aspects?
The answer: From the very beginning and even today, business considerations seem to be the dominant drivers for all parties involved, be it Boeing, Airbus, FAA, US DOJ, US Congress, UK’s Serious Fraud Office, EU’s DOJ, and the airlines. If humanitarian concerns were paramount, do you think that the grieving families should get “just” $500 million? Do you think the countries and airlines that were the victims of corrupt practices should get nothing?
If economics drives all, then let’s see how they play their game.
It all started because the Boeing 737 family of planes — the most successful commercial airplane ever — dominated the market, especially after the introduction of the Boeing B-737 NG (the predecessor to Max). It forced Airbus to improve its AB320. When they introduced the AB320neo (short for “new engine option“) toreplace their older original AB320s, well, improve they did!
It has been alleged that competitive pressures drove Airbus to bribe customers (airlines), Boeing to manipulate certification, the FAA to allow Boeing to “self-inspect” and “self-certify” on FAA’s behalf, Airbus to prevent thethree regulatory agencies from revealing the findings of the corruption investigations. Come again? Business competition justified the loss of lives and other monstrous damages?
Before the B737 Max, the existing model was B737 NG, short for New Generation. It replaced the older B737 Classic. Although Airbus’ AB320 was a popular plane too, the lion’s share of the market for medium narrow-body jetliners still belonged to Boeing.
Then, Airbus introduced the AB320neo. It was better in every respect than the B737 NG: fuel economy, flying costs, operating costs, costs per mile, maintenance costs, training costs, passenger capacity, cargo capacity, ground handling, and to airlines the all-crucial: range, and duration. Sure enough, it was a smash hit with all airlines. The 737 NG new orders actually became less than orders for the AB320. By 2010, Airbus would be selling more medium-range jets than Boeing.
Not only was the AB320neo better, but Airbus also managed to introduce the neo version in record short time —just two years. How? The first AB320 was built well after the Classic B737. As a result, the original AB320 had much more room, margins, and flexibility to be modified and improved into a new version without calling it a new plane.
Being of a much older design, the Boeing B737 had already gone through several upgrade iterations. The latest were the very successful improvements of the 737 Classic to the 737 New Generation (NG). However, the NG’s advances rendered the basic B737 design to bump into many of the 737 family’s technical performance envelope. Any significant change thereafter would require Boeing to certify a further improved version of the B737 Classic as an altogether new plane.
With AB320neo’s commercial success, Boeing had to defend itself. The B737 NG improvements had used up all the remaining flexibility to modify the B737 basic design. Boeing needed a better engine to be on par with the AB320neo’s superior fuel consumption (always a significant factor in the purchase decision among airlines) over the then-current NG’s.
When it comes to fuel efficiency, one of the quickest ways to improve the engine’s performance is to let it suck in more air through the turbofans. The most obvious approach is to make the inlet fans much wider, thus making the overall dimensions, especially the diameter, bigger. Because the engine placement is below the wing, it cannot be made too big because there has to be sufficient ground clearance between the engines’ tipsand the runway.
Remember, the original AB320 is Airbus’ attempt to compete with the highly successful Boeing 737 Classic. Being born much later, the original AB320 had a crucial advantage over the 737. The AB320 designers anticipated that one day more fuel-efficient turbo fanjets with wider fan diameters would be available. Hence the original AB320’s wing design had much more ground clearance. Sure enough, installing the new “bulkier” AB320neo engine was considered a minor improvement by EASA (the European equivalent to FAA). No majorrecertification was needed, let alone a brand new aircraft Type Certificate. For companies like Boeing and Airbus — masters of all sorts of technologies— certification is much less about passing extraordinarily high and demanding engineering standards. As world-renown engineering- and technology-driven companies, the twocompanies pass stringent standards all the time. The certification phase’s real cost is not about the What, Who, andHow but about the When: The amount of time the certification process adds to the improved plane’s concept-to-market timeline.
FAA (and EASA) classifies certification in roughly three ways. Type Certificates are for New Planes. This process usually takes at least seven years, typically eight or even more. Then there are Amended Type Certificates that ordinarily consume three to five years. And finally, very Minor Amendments take six months to a year to approve.
Minor Amendments only apply to tiny changes. Examples of minor modifications are changing the coffee makertype in the galley or adding an extra antenna to allow Wi-Fi onboard. Modifications that require significant pilot retraining, new flight simulators, new maintenance procedures, and different ground handling procedures do not pass old-plane Type Amendments. Forget changing the wing design. New plane Type Certificates are mandatory for such changes.
Once a particular change passes FAA or EASA certification, all similar planes in the world, modified to the newer specification, also automatically pass. The certificate is for the type of airplane, not for each aircraft. In otherwords, when one plane type passes the tests, then all planes of that type are deemed to have passed.
For plane makers (aka airframe manufacturers), even minor certification can add six months to a new engineering initiative. In the case of new products— especially as a response to a competitive threat — time is worth more than money. Saving time is worth much more than saving money.
Changing to a newer engine model is a significant change. Adding three to five years of certification is not uncommon. Even that is on condition that the new engines do not drastically change the plane’s basicaerodynamics.
The original AB320 had plenty of room to accommodate new, larger engines. Amending the old Type Certificate of the original AB320 to the AB320neo was relatively easy. Boeing’s B737 NG’s had no such luck. Installing a new, heavier, and bulkier engine needed big modifications. Such changes could compel the airframe manufacturer to redesign the whole wing. That would be a major change that automatically requires seven to eight years to certify as an altogether new plane.
By 2011, seeing their B737NG market share rapidly eroded by the success of AB320neo, Boeing management needed an immediate answer. They embarked on the MAX; to be completed in an unprecedented four years. The best (most direct, lowest cost, and most importantly, fastest) technical response to the AB320neo was for Boeing to do precisely what Airbus did: Attach newer, more powerful, more fuel-efficient turbo fanjets — even though the engine’s bulk and weight increased significantly. In fact, Boeing decided to use the exact same engine that the AB320neo uses.
The Boeing B737 Max’s limitation — which was not an issue for the Airbus AB320neo — was that the new engine would scrape the ground when attached at the same wing position as the old engine. The new engine was simplytoo bulky for the old wing. Merely raising the wing means certifying a new plane. Installing a taller landing gear is not an option either. Any modification that makes a plane sit higher than the original is deemed a new plane, too. So they moved it further up the wing, and it also protruded further out.
However, in wind tunnel tests, by tinkering with the wing’s engine position, the 737 MAX displayed unstable flight characteristics under certain flight conditions. To save precious time to get to market, Boeing wasdetermined to avoid new plane Type Certification. The only way to overcome such a critical flight problem and still not change the wing design is by computer. A plane can be programmed to automatically overcome its inherent instability through sophisticated instrumentation, software, and control systems. All is good when thesoftware has no bugs and — most importantly — anticipates all scenarios, especially implausible, improbableand unexpected situations.
Furthermore, the software upgrades necessitate serious retraining of pilots. According to FAA and EASA rules, any design change that precipitates significant retraining of pilots must obtain new plane type certification, not amended type modification. Eight years instead of three.
A decade before 2011, FAA requested budget approvals far exceeding the growth of the aviation industries it supervised — reflecting how complicated aeronautics was evolving. Expert human resources became harder to find and more expensive. Curiously, in December 2003, the US Congress passed the Vision 100—Century Of Aviation Reauthorization Act.
“… the Administrator may issue a design organization certificate to a design organization to authorize the organization to certify compliance with the requirements and minimum standards prescribed under section44701(a) for the type certification of aircraft, aircraft engines, propellers, or appliances …”.
Substitute the words “design organization” with the name “Boeing.” US legislators virtually instructed FAA (the Administrator) to let Boeing certify compliance of Boeing. Congress gave the FAA seven years to make that happen. Lobbyists play a crucial role in what the US Congress passes as law. One can’t help wonder what role Boeing’s lobbyists have in getting such wording into law.
FAA allowed airframe manufacturers to choose their own engineers to oversee their own company. In 2009, the FAA created the Boeing Aviation Safety Oversight Office, explicitly dedicated to Boeing’s oversight and staffed primarily by Boeing personnel. In 2011 American Airlines threatened to buy only AB320neo’s if Boeing could not come up with a plane to match Airbus, prompting Boeing to formally announce their MAX program. In January 2012, Boeing officially applied for the amended type certification. The labor union representing FAA engineers reported that Boeing was allowed to certify 96 percent of its own production. In March 2017, the FAA granted amended certification for the 737 Max.
Clearly, in those days, all parties were motivated by economic, commercial, financial, and business considerations, which were tragic and fatal accidents just waiting to happen. Eighteen and 24 months later, aircraft of Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines, respectively, crashed.
Angel on Boeing’s shoulder
Since the worldwide grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max, much has transpired. Airlines canceled firm orders; those that already operated Max fleets suffered lost revenues. Max airframe production ground to a virtual halt; suppliers and vendors let go of workers. Liability claims mushroomed, investigations were initiated, and Airbus 320neo got even more new orders. Still, Airbus pays $4 billion to settle alleged corruption charges.
And then… CoViD-19!
Boeing has angels on its shoulders. Airlines put aside all expansion plans; all aircraft deliveries (from all airframe manufacturers) postponed, even canceled. Although the pandemic struck Boeing hard, it hit Airbus as bad.
With or without CoViD-19, Boeing had already lost its Max vs. neo battle. Thanks to the pandemic, Airbus did not reap any competitive advantage anyway. The time Boeing lost on fixing Max’s problems did not benefit Airbus.
Last November, Max passed FAA recertification. In December, CoViD-19 vaccinations began. Last week Boeingsettled with the US DOJ. Airlines will have to get specific recertification of pilot training, which takes time. Re-establishing dormant supply chains takes two years. The best estimate for global vaccination and reachingminimum herd immunity is two years. So air travel will be stunted for yet another two years.
All of that gives plenty of time for Boeing to recover, without having to worry that Airbus will gain at Boeing’s expense. What a break! Whatever damage Max cost Boeing for ignoring good governance, nature’s virus fixed.
I am sure the Max is now a much safer plane to fly. But the commercial question still looms: Using FAA and EASA’s own rules, shouldn’t the certification be NEW PLANE TYPE certification?
Under what pretext did FAA issue a Type Amendment certification, instead of insisting on the proper new plane Type Certificate? After all, wasn’t the engine position on the wing moved? From 2011, didn’t Boeing already know the new engine would most likely require a New Type certification? That’s why they engaged in alleged criminal maneuvers to conceal the degree and severity of the modifications in the first place. Do fixingsoftware bugs, settling with DOJ, and ensuring pilot retraining mean that Amendment Certification, instead of new Type Certification, is suddenly ok? What happened to the still-true fact that the engine position changed?
It seems Economic Man still rules the world.
Editor’s note: This article is a commentary. The views expressed in it are those of the writer and do not reflect those of PinterPolitik.