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The 737 MAX 8 is Safe, but International Civil Aviation Regulators Must Do More

The 737 MAX 8 is Safe, but International Civil Aviation Regulators Must Do More

Last Sunday’s fatal crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 outside Addis Ababa—the second accident involving a Boeing 737 MAX 8 in just five months—has sent shockwaves across the globe, with President Donald Trump announcing Wednesday that the United States is joining more than 40 other countries in grounding the MAX 8 and MAX 9 models until further notice.

Leading up to the White House’s emergency order, the FAA, Southwest Airlines and American Airlines had all expressed confidence in the MAX 8’s airworthiness despite growing concerns with the airplane’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, a new software feature Boeing added to stabilize the reengined 737 during low-speed, nose-up flying conditions in which airplane could potentially stall.

While keeping MAX 8s out of the sky is an effective, albeit extreme, move by regulators to forestall further accidents until Boeing releases an update to the aircraft’s software next month, the unpopular truth is that the MCAS alone did not cause Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 to crash—nor did it cause Lion Air Flight 610 to nosedive into the Java Sea last October.  Indeed, both flights would have landed safely if their respective civil aviation authorities had made sure that the airlines had adequately trained the pilots to handle standard emergency scenarios.

To be clear, neither of the two flights’ crews are to blame. In most countries around the world, commercial passenger airlines are regulated by civil aviation authorities that, like the FAA, are responsible for overseeing air transport operations and ensuring that airlines comply with worldwide aviation safety standards, such as those set forth by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).  Airlines are required to administer periodic proficiency checks to retrain pilots on the aircraft they fly and rehearse possible scenarios that could jeopardize safety in flight.  Ultimately, responsibility for seeing that air carriers conduct these checks—as well as for verifying that emergency industry and manufacturer bulletins are promptly incorporated into an airline’s training programs—rests with the civil aviation regulator of the country in which an airline is based.

For example, following the Lion Air accident last October, Boeing issued a worldwide Operations Manual Bulletin telling its MAX 8 customers how to override a “runaway stabilizer” and recover the aircraft from an MCAS-induced nosedive. The next day, the FAA directed U.S. airlines to revise their airplane flight manuals to include this procedure and train their flight crews to override the MCAS by setting the flight controls’ STAB TRIM switches to CUTOUT and manually flying the aircraft for the remainder of the flight.

Likewise, the Ethiopian Civil Aviation Authority should have confirmed that its country’s airlines also trained their pilots on the recovery procedure. It has been reported that Ethiopian Airlines did train its pilots on Boeing’s bulletin in the wake of the Lion Air crash; but the degree to which the regulator was involved in confirming that the training was effectively administered remains unclear. Pilot training oversight continues to be one of the most common areas in need of improvement by foreign civil aviation authorities.

While it is still too early to speculate as to the exact cause of Sunday’s accident, the unsettling similarities between Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 suggest that a runaway stabilizer contributed to both crashes. If so, Flight 302’s pilots likely did not cut power to the stabilizer and fly by hand when MCAS tilted the MAX 8’s nose downward, instead reacting by pulling back on the yoke in an attempt to bring the nose back up. This appears to be what happened to Lion Air Flight 610, which recorded erratic altitude fluctuations and unstable vertical speeds shortly after taking off, indicating that the pilots struggled repeatedly with the aircraft’s flight controls prior to impact as opposed to switching the STAB TRIM switches to CUTOUT.

It is true that Boeing needs to implement a comprehensive fix to resolve MCAS’s well-known issues.  But the rush to ground the MAX 8 worldwide—while certainly one way to guarantee safety—risks ignoring the systemic breakdowns in regulatory oversight of pilot training that must be fixed in order to prevent tragedies like Flight 610 and Flight 302 from happening again.

Glenn Wicks is the Managing Director of The Wicks Group, a Washington, DC-based international aviation law and consulting firm. Barry Valentine is the former Acting Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration and Senior Advisor to The Wicks Group. John Waltz is leading expert in flight simulation training device certification and a Senior Technical Consultant at The Wicks Group.

EU Files Boeing 777X Tax Incentive Dispute With WTO

Los Angeles, CA – The European Union (EU) has filed a dispute with the WTO Secretariat in Geneva against the U.S. regarding “conditional tax incentives” offered by the state of Washington to “commercial airplane manufacturers.”

The EU asserts in the dispute – a not-so-veiled slap at Boeing and its new 777X commercial jetliner – that the “vastly expanded tax incentives are conditioned on local content requirements prohibited by the WTO Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures.”

The request for consultations was made, the European Commission (EC) said, in response to a decision by the state of Washington in November 2013, to extend to 2040 subsidies to Boeing that were originally granted through 2024.

The EC is charging that the broadened subsidies were contrary to the WTO rules, “because they require the beneficiary to use domestic goods rather than imported ones.”

“The subsidies scheme extension is estimated to be worth $8.7 billion and will be the largest subsidy for the civil aerospace industry in U.S. history,” according to a Commission statement.

The 777X is a new version of Boeing’s successful 777 twin-engine wide-body jet. It’s scheduled to go into service in 2020. The company has reportedly received orders amounting to billions of dollars for the aircraft from a number of air carriers.

The EU’s request Friday for consultations is the first step in a dispute within the WTO’s Dispute Settlement System.

WTO rules call for Washington, D.C. to respond to the request within 10 days, but due to the Christmas holidays, the EU has agreed to extend the deadline until January 7.

The consultations will give the U.S. and the EU the opportunity to discuss the dispute and reach a solution without proceeding to litigation. The talks must begin within 30 days and generally cannot last longer than two months.

If both parties fail to reach an agreement, the EU can request that a “panel of experts” be commissioned to study the dispute and reach a verdict.


Boeing to Source Fiber 777X Components from Japan

Tokyo, Japan – Japan’s Toray Industries has agreed to supply carbon fiber materials for Boeing’s new 777X jet and the Dreamliner in a 10-year deal worth more than $8.6 billion.

The deal calls for Toray to supply the material Boeing will use to build wings for the new jet, a large twin-engine passenger aircraft that’s set for delivery in 2020.

Boeing is building a plant in Washington state dedicated to making the 777X’s wings and Toray “has been selected for these main wings,” it said.

Last year, Toray said it would buy smaller U.S. rival Zoltek for about $584 million, on the back of rising demand for carbon fiber materials, which are lighter and stronger than steel and aluminium.

The news on Monday was partly in response to Boeing’s plan to ramp up production of the Dreamliner, Toray said.

Boeing has said it is planning to raise the number of 787 aircraft being produced every month from the current 10 planes to 12 per month in 2016 and 14 per month by the end of the decade.


Global Air Cargo Volume to Double by 2033

Chicago, IL – Boeing has released a report projecting air cargo traffic to grow at an annual rate of 4.7 percent over the next 20 years, with global air freight traffic expected to more than double by 2033.

Major air cargo carriers were severely hit by the global financial crisis in 2008 and, despite a rebound in 2010, worldwide air cargo traffic has remained flat in recent years, the World Air Cargo Forecast said.

The market began to see growth again in second quarter of 2013 reaching 4.4 percent for the first seven months of 2014 compared to the same period a year earlier.

If this trend continues, 2014 will be the highest growth year for the air freight industry since 2010, according to the Boeing report.

“We see strong signs of a recovery as air freight traffic levels continue to strengthen after several years of stagnation,” said Randy Tinseth, Boeing’s Commercial Airplanes’ vice president of marketing.

The global air cargo market “is now growing at nearly the long-term rates,” he said in a statement.

The new forecast shows Asia-North America and Europe-Asia will continue to be the dominant world air cargo markets with the most traffic volume. Intra-Asia, domestic China and Asia-North America markets are expected to have the fastest growth rates over the next 20 years.

With increased air cargo traffic, the world freighter fleet is also expected to grow with deliveries of 840 new factory-built airplanes and 1,330 passenger-to-freighter conversion airplanes.

More than 52 percent of those deliveries are expected to replace retiring airplanes and the remainder used for fleet expansion.


Boeing Completes Mexico Satellite Project

El Segundo, CA – Boeing has finished production of a trio of communication satellites for the Mexican government.

The $1 billion contract for the “Mexsat” project was signed in 2011 calling for Boeing to design and manufacture two 702HP geo-mobile satellites and contract with the Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp. to build the third, a GEOStar-2.

The Orbital-built satellite was completed in 2012 and was successfully launched atop an Ariane 5 rocket in December of that year.

The development of two ground stations in Iztapalapa and Hermosillo was included in the contract and will serve to relay space-based signals to the satellites once they are deployed to their full 134-foot length.

Both Boeing 702HP satellites are equipped with five solar panel “wings” and an antenna roughly the size of a basketball court.

The company has already provided Mexico with five satellites dating back to 1985 with the last launched in 1998 and still in service.

Boeing said it will launch the first 702HP in early 2015 on a Russian Proton-M rocket with the second set to be sent aloft aboard an Atlas V by 2016.