I’m currently writing a novel whose genesis is the 1979 crash of an American Airlines DC-10 at Chicago's O’Hare International Airport, an accident that took 279 lives and remains the worst air disaster in American history.
It was preventable.
Even after the well-documented and catastrophic loss of an engine that day, there existed a piece of optional equipment—a stick-shaker—could have alerted the crew to the stall of the tri-jet and allowed the captain to attempt a landing. But that piece was deemed too costly, and American Airlines passed on it. The onus of not including it as standard equipment fell on McDonnell-Douglas, the manufacturer of the plane.
Such false economy is not unprecedented. The first American car to have a seatbelt was the 1949 Nash, but two decades passed before the device became standard equipment.
Now in 2019 we learn that a device that would have alerted the pilots of both the Lion Air and the Ethiopian pilots to a problem with the 737 Max-8 was also an option that both airlines had passed on—and that Boeing had not made standard equipment: MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) upgrades would have alerted the pilots to a problem.
From the NY Times, March 21:
“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.”
Optional. Sometimes the word indicates premium seating, or fancy lighting, or an extra bathroom—not a big deal. But sometimes it's navigational or communications systems, even safety features; for instance, some airlines opt for an extra fire extinguisher in the cargo hold, but most do not. That should never be an option, not when the ValuJet crash in 1996 was directly attributable to that kind of fire. One-hundred ten died in that accident. The price-per-passenger for these upgrades would have been infinitesimal and would not have cut that deeply into Boeing’s profits—$10.5 billion in 2018. (To be accurate, in the ValuJet crash, the plane was not a Boeing model.)
It now appears that Boeing rushed the 737-Max 8 into service to compete with the tremendously popular Airbus 320 neo, another fuel-saving and technologically advanced airplane. Boeing had originally planned an entirely new aircraft, scheduled for delivery beginning in 2020, but the pressure from Airbus led the company to choose modification instead. Such a measure is not unusual and certainly not reckless, but what happened between that decision and the rollout of the new plane has so far cost nearly 350 lives.
Beyond the human toll, the cost to Boeing's reputation may be just as irretrievable. We need only look at the 1979 O'Hare crash to see the aftermath: McDonnell-Douglas was absorbed by Boeing in 1997 and delivered its last passenger plane in 2001. It was an MD-11, a reboot of the DC-10, the same plane that began its downfall.
Like the rest of Washington, the FAA finds itself understaffed within the current administration. We therefore have to count on companies like Boeing to police themselves. If the past six months is any indication, they are failing.