Just three years after its first flight, the Boeing 737 Max 8 jet has already been implicated in two fatal accidents: the Oct. 29 Lion Air crash that claimed 189 lives near Jakarta, Indonesia and the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 just outside Addis Ababa. No other commercial aircraft has been implicated in as many fatalities so rapidly since 1966.
Since the second crash, countries around the world have grounded the plane. Investigators have sought clues to what went wrong. And intense media scrutiny has altered our perceptions of flight safety while uncovering the cozy relationship between Boeing and US regulators.
The definitive causes of the crashes have yet to be determined. Here is a look at what we’ve learned so far about the planes and what may have brought them down:
What the crashes had in common
Black-box data shows “clear similarities” between Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes
- Both planes hit trouble just after takeoff.
- Pilots reported flight control challenges.
- Controllers observed erratic, up and down flight patterns.
What looks to have gone wrong
A string of missteps may have made the 737 Max crash-prone
- Evidence suggests a safety feature called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) sent both planes into their fatal dives as pilots struggled to keep aloft.
- The MCAS automatically nudges the nose of the plane down if sensors detect an imminent stall. A faulty sensor can send the plane into a dive again and again.
- Boeing installed the software on planes without fully informing regulators or pilots about how it works.
A cockpit warning light for a mechanical fault was an optional add-on
- The Lion Air plane did not have an optional safety feature installed in the aircraft.
- Boeing will now provide the warning light as a standard feature, Reuters reports. Airlines have had to pay extra to have it installed.
- The feature would have alerted crew that flight-angle readings were erroneous and likely to trigger the MCAS unnecessarily.
Pilots trained to fly the 737 Max with “an iPad lesson for an hour”
- The FAA deemed the 737 Max 8 a variant of the 737-800, so pilots who were already certified to fly the older plane only had to complete one additional hour of training.
- Neither the lesson nor the flight manuals mentioned the MCAS, which was a new feature on the Max 8.
- Pilots say they only learned about the system after the Lion Air crash.
How the groundings played out
A global satellite network convinced the FAA to ground Boeing’s 737 Max
- Dozens of countries banned the Boeing 737 Max from their airspace shortly after the Ethiopian Airlines crash.
- The US Federal Aviation Administration waited three days, saying there were “no systemic performance issues” that its experts could identify.
- US regulators were finally convinced by satellite data from Aireon, which monitors airplanes in remote locations where there are no ground sensors. The company recorded similarities in the flight paths for both downed planes.
Donald Trump put himself at the center of the Boeing Max crisis
- After making a flurry of phone calls to regulators and Boeing executives, the US president beat his own FAA to the news that the US was grounding the 737 Max 8 and 9.
- On March 13, Trump told reporters: “We didn’t have to make this decision today. We could have delayed it. We maybe didn’t have to make it at all. But I felt it was important both psychologically and in a lot of other ways.”
- That same day, acting FAA administrator Dan Elwell later clarified that the decision was “fact-based” and due to “new satellite data available this morning.”
How cozy Boeing is with DC
The flow of money and influence between the US government and Boeing
- The US government’s handling of the Boeing Max situation “raises the question whether the decision was made based on what’s in the public interest, or based off of relationships and influence,” said Brendan Fischer of watchdog group Campaign Legal Center.
- Boeing “has a strong interest in government policy and contracting, and seeks to exert influence over government officials in any way possible,” he told Quartz.
- The FAA’s initial inaction came as Donald Trump was told on March 12 by Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg that plane was safe, one of multiple conversations they had, people familiar with the calls told Quartz.
A promised fix was once delayed
Boeing will release a software update to make the 737 Max safer
- Boeing plans to release a software patch in April that will limit the number of times the MCAS can nudge down the nose of a plane
- The fix will be designed to make it simpler for pilots to troubleshoot problems with the flight-control system.
- Software upgrades, originally expected in January, were delayed, the Wall Street Journal reported Feb. 10, because of “engineering challenges,” “differences of opinion” between federal and Boeing officials, and the 35-day government shutdown.
How we see air safety now
Where the Boeing 737 Max 8 stands among the world’s most fatal commercial aircraft
- No other commercial aircraft has been implicated in as many fatalities so rapidly since 1966, according to a list of 46 other models flown in commercial fleets compiled by DVB Bank, according to a Quartz analysis of Aviation Safety Network data.
- Overall, the 3,065 fatalities onboard the Russian Tupolev Tu-154 are more than any of the 47 aircraft models Quartz analyzed.
- Commercial staples from Boeing, the 737-200 and 747-200, rank second and third on the list.
These crashes are changing our perception of airline safety
- The statistical likelihood of any individual being involved in a plane crash may not have changed meaningfully this month.
- Still, the glimpse into the workings of commercial aviation that the 737 Max saga offers highlights how prone to human error the systems, authorities, and protocols meant to keep us safe really are.
- The cascade of international groundings, as Washington Post columnist Joe Davidson put it, undermined faith in the FAA as a leader in air safety, exposing it instead as “but a distant follower.”
The business impact
What will happen to Boeing now?
- Since the Ethiopian Airlines crash, Boeing has lost tens of billions of dollars in market value. Boeing may also face regulatory fines and class-action lawsuits.
- Boeing has been riding high on a wave of 737 Max orders. Now, an oversaturated market, airlines’ losses from grounded flights, and scrutiny of the jets’ safety might slow business. Indonesian airline Garuda says it’s canceling a multibillion-dollar order. “Our passengers have lost confidence to fly with the Max 8,” Garuda spokesperson Ikhsan Rosan told CNN.
- The company recovered from massive fines and a PR meltdown in 2006, when it was accused of corporate espionage and a too-cozy relationship with a Pentagon official.
Boeing’s share price has a strangely large impact on the Dow
- Boeing has the capacity to make the Dow Jones Industrial Average swing wildly.
- Boeing’s share price is many multiples of almost every other company in the stock index, with volume outstripped by only Apple and Microsoft.
- This is why it has an outsized influence on the Dow, with a percentage weighting of over 11%.
It would be tough for fast-growing Ethiopian Airlines to break up with Boeing
- The business relationship between Boeing and Ethiopia Airlines goes back 60 years, helping transform the carrier into Africa’s largest and most successful airline, with one of the newest major fleets in the world.
- The crash has brought renewed attention to its regional and global aspirations and its plans to open itself up for private investment.
- Although Ethiopian Airlines also buys planes from rival manufacturer Airbus, it is unlikely to switch its longstanding allegiance from Boeing.
The impact on the 1%
What’s a private 737 Max owner to do?
- There were 21 private orders for the now-grounded Boeing 737 Max in the sales pipeline, with price tags starting at $74 million.
- Two were already delivered to completion facilities for finishing. The first is expected to be ready for its unnamed US owner by the end of the year.
- Until governments lift the bans on flying the 737 Max, no one can use them.
There’s a word for all of this
“Kludge” comes up when pilots and engineers discuss the 737 Max
- Merriam-Webster defines kludge—sometimes spelled kluge—as “a haphazard or makeshift solution to a problem and especially to a computer or programming problem.”
- Oxford’s definition: “A machine, system, or program that has been badly put together, especially a clumsy but temporarily effective solution to a particular fault or problem.”
- Used in a sentence: “The MCAS, a software patched together to make up for the fact that the 737 Max is particularly prone to stall at high speeds, turned out to be a disastrous kludge.”
Read more of Quartz’s coverage of the Boeing 737 Max crisis.