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Doomed Boeing Jets Lacked 2 Safety Features That Company Sold Only asExtras
As the pilots of the doomed Boeing jets in Ethiopia and
Indonesia fought to control their planes, they lacked two
notable safety features in their cockpits.
One reason: Boeing charged extra for them.
For Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers, the practice of
charging to upgrade a standard plane can be lucrative. Top
airlines around the world must pay handsomely to have the jets
they order fitted with customized add-ons.
Sometimes these optional features involve aesthetics or comfort,
like premium seating, fancy lighting or extra bathrooms. But
other features involve communication, navigation or safety
systems, and are more fundamental to the plane’s operations.
Many airlines, especially low-cost carriers like Indonesia’s
Lion Air, have opted not to buy them — and regulators don’t
Now, in the wake of the two deadly crashes involving the same
jet model, Boeing will make one of those safety features
standard as part of a fix to get the planes in the air again.
It is not yet known what caused the crashes of Ethiopian
Airlines Flight 302 on March 10 and Lion Air Flight 610 five
months earlier, both after erratic takeoffs. But investigators
are looking at whether a new software system added to avoid
stalls in Boeing’s 737 Max series may have been partly to blame.
Faulty data from sensors on the Lion Air plane may have caused
the system, known as MCAS, to malfunction, authorities
investigating that crash suspect.
That software system takes readings from two vanelike devices
called angle of attack sensors that determine how much the
plane’s nose is pointing up or down relative to oncoming air.
When MCAS detects that the plane is pointing up at a dangerous
angle, it can automatically push down the nose of the plane in
an effort to prevent the plane from stalling.
Boeing’s optional safety features, in part, could have helped
the pilots detect any erroneous readings. One of the optional
upgrades, the angle of attack indicator, displays the readings
of the two sensors. The other, called a disagree light, is
activated if those sensors are at odds with one another.
Boeing will soon update the MCAS software, and will also make
the disagree light standard on all new 737 Max planes, according
to a person familiar with the changes, who spoke on condition of
anonymity because they have not been made public. The angle of
attack indicator will remain an option that airlines can buy.
Neither feature was mandated by the Federal Aviation
Administration. All 737 Max jets have been grounded.
“They’re critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to
install,” said Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst at the aviation
consultancy Leeham. “Boeing charges for them because it can. But
they’re vital for safety.”
[After a Lion Air 737 Max crashed in October, questions about
the plane arose.]
Earlier this week, Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief
executive, said the company was working to make the 737 Max
“As part of our standard practice following any accident, we
examine our aircraft design and operation, and when appropriate,
institute product updates to further improve safety,” he said in
Add-on features can be big moneymakers for plane manufacturers.
In 2013, around the time Boeing was starting to market its 737
Max 8, an airline would expect to spend about $800,000 to $2
million on various options for such a narrow-body aircraft,
according to a report by Jackson Square Aviation, a consultancy
in San Francisco. That would be about 5 percent of the plane’s
[The F.A.A.’s approval of the Boeing jet has come under
Boeing charges extra, for example, for a backup fire
extinguisher in the cargo hold. Past incidents have shown that a
single extinguishing system may not be enough to put out flames
that spread rapidly through the plane. Regulators in Japan
require airlines there to install backup fire extinguishing
systems, but the F.A.A. does not.
“There are so many things that should not be optional, and many
airlines want the cheapest airplane you can get,” said Mark H.
Goodrich, an aviation lawyer and former engineering test pilot.
“And Boeing is able to say, ‘Hey, it was available.’”
But what Boeing doesn’t say, he added, is that it has become “a
great profit center” for the manufacturer.
Both Boeing and its airline customers have taken pains to keep
these options, and prices, out of the public eye. Airlines
frequently redact details of the features they opt to pay for —
or exclude — from their filings with financial regulators.
Boeing declined to disclose the full menu of safety features it
offers as options on the 737 Max, or how much they cost.
But one unredacted filing from 2003 for a previous version of
the 737 shows that Gol Airlines, a Brazilian carrier, paid
$6,700 extra for oxygen masks for its crew, and $11,900 for an
advanced weather radar system control panel. Gol did not
immediately respond to a request for comment.
The three American airlines that bought the 737 Max each took a
different approach to outfitting the cockpits.
American Airlines, which ordered 100 of the planes and has 24 in
its fleet, bought both the angle of attack indicator and the
disagree light, the company said.
Southwest Airlines, which ordered 280 of the planes and counts
36 in its fleet so far, had already purchased the disagree alert
option, and it also installed an angle of attack indicator in a
display mounted above the pilots’ heads. After the Lion Air
crash, Southwest said it would modify its 737 Max fleet to place
the angle of attack indicator on the pilots’ main computer
United Airlines, which ordered 137 of the planes and has
received 14, did not select the indicators or the disagree
light. A United spokesman said the airline does not include the
features because its pilots use other data to fly the plane.
Boeing is making other changes to the MCAS software.
When it was rolled out, MCAS took readings from only one sensor
on any given flight, leaving the system vulnerable to a single
point of failure. One theory in the Lion Air crash is that MCAS
was receiving faulty data from one of the sensors, prompting an
unrecoverable nose dive.
In the software update that Boeing says is coming soon, MCAS
will be modified to take readings from both sensors. If there is
a meaningful disagreement between the readings, MCAS will be
Incorporating the disagree light and the angle of attack
indicators on all planes would be a welcome move, safety experts
said, and would alert pilots — as well as maintenance staff who
service a plane after a problematic flight — to issues with the
The alert, especially, would bring attention to a sensor
malfunction, and warn pilots they should prepare to shut down
the MCAS if it activated erroneously, said Peter Lemme, an
avionics and satellite-communications consultant and former
Boeing flight controls engineer.
“In the heat of the moment, it certainly would help,” he said.
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