Ethiopian Airlines CEO: 737 Max 8 Stall Prevention Software Active During Crash

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After the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, suspicion almost instantly fell on the plane’s 737 Max 8’s new anti-stall system, known as MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). This system was also installed on Lion Air Flight 610, which crashed last year. Because it’s so unusual to lose aircraft — much less new ones — there were immediate concerns that the two crashes might be related. There has, however, been limited comment from anyone involved in the chain of investigation as to whether the two were linked. We know that there were similarities between the two based on radar data, but acknowledgment of the linkage has been slower to happen, probably because of the stakes of making the claim.

On Monday, the CEO of Ethiopian Airlines explicitly stated that Flight 302’s anti-stall system was engaged when the plane struck the ground. According to CEO Tewolde GebreMariam, the automatic anti-stall system was active “to the best of our knowledge.” At the same time, however, the CEO reaffirmed that Ethiopian Airlines considers Boeing to be a critical partner and strategic asset. No mention was made of canceling any outstanding orders for the 737 Max 8. Meanwhile, Boeing’s new software update is being tested in simulators, with pilots from Southwest, United, and American all certifying on the new software patches.

Late last week, Garuda Indonesia became the first company to cancel its 737 Max 8 order in the wake of the disaster. You might expect to see other companies following suit, given the fact that the Boeing 737 Max 8 was possibly rushed into service with less testing than it should have received out of a desire to minimize costs and speed the plane’s ability to compete with the Airbus 320neo (New Engine Optimization). The Boeing 737 Max 8 was designed to be 4 percent more efficient than the A320neo after its engine upgrade.

But as important as efficiency is, expert studies have concluded that having a reputation for not slamming passengers into the ground at several hundred miles per hour is even more fundamental to an airline’s ability to continue as a going concern. If passengers attempt to avoid the 737 Max 8 by changing their flight schedules to rely on other aircraft or airlines that don’t fly the jet, the business impact could be significant for some carriers. Given this, why don’t we see more companies jumping ship?

Probably because they can’t.

There are five major companies that manufacture aircraft: Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier, Embraer, and Tupolev. Of the five, only Airbus and Boeing are considered to be in the same league, and Boeing’s overall yearly production capacity is higher. Put simply, there are few alternatives unless you can afford to wait for years to buy a new jet. The more jets you want to buy, the more difficult the prospect of sourcing them elsewhere, given production constraints and the time required to assemble a new plane.

Boeing’s Everett factory. Image credit: Jetstar Airways

Furthermore, adopting a new jet means needing a complete supply line for its parts, training ground crews on maintenance, and ensuring that pilots are familiar with the aircraft (or hiring pilots specifically because they are familiar with a new aircraft). Airlines also typically pay an up-front deposit for an aircraft, as well as periodic payments as it moves through manufacturing. Some experts have predicted that airlines could reduce orders or seek to cut costs rather than canceling them altogether. Airlines might also be nervous about canceling orders with one of just two aircraft manufacturers, knowing that it might come back to bite them later when they need planes.

Boeing’s software update is expected in April and the 737 Max 8 won’t return to service until after its available. The chances of mass aircraft order cancellations or a major switch to Airbus from Boeing are both currently seen as remote.

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