Boeing Unveils Software Updates For 737 Max Jets

Mar 27, 2019
Originally published on March 27, 2019 6:36 pm
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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The aircraft manufacturer Boeing is trying to rebuild trust with airlines, pilots, regulators and the flying public in the wake of two deadly 737 Max crashes in recent months. Today the company unveiled software fixes for an automated flight control system in the company's 737 Max airplanes.

Joining us from Seattle, where Boeing representatives briefed reporters and others on the software fix, is NPR's David Schaper. He covers aviation. David, set the scene for us. How did Boeing roll out these software changes?

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Yeah, sure, Audie. Since we're in the month of March and it's March Madness, I'll use a basketball analogy. It's kind of a full-court press from Boeing. The primary audience is Boeing's customers, the airlines, the pilots who fly the 737 Max and ultimately the people who fly on the planes, the flying public. So while there was one briefing going on for reporters, another was taking place for about 200 pilots and industry officials and regulators also from all around the world.

Many pilots in particular were quite upset to learn about this new flight control system called MCAS that did not exist on previous versions of the 737, and many pilots say they didn't know about this system until after the crash of the Lion Air jet in Indonesia last October. And so Boeing's vice president of product strategy and development acknowledged that in his opening remarks to the media.

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MIKE SINNETT: We're working with customers and regulators around the world to restore faith in our industry and also to reaffirm our commitment to safety and to earning the trust of the flying public.

SCHAPER: After that, Sinnett got into a quite detailed technical explanation of what the flight control system does and doesn't do and how these software fixes are going to prevent such tragedies from happening in the future.

CORNISH: In promoting these fixes, did Boeing in any way basically acknowledge - right? - that the system was originally designed in some way that was problematic?

SCHAPER: No. And in fact, they didn't say the system was inadequate at all. The Boeing executives there say the system worked as it should have, as initially designed, and the implementation of the system was a good one. The changes that they're making now are just making it more robust, they say. They went on to say that they don't see any systemic problems internally in the company and the way they went about engineering and developing the 737 Max and this MCAS system and then ultimately by having it approved by regulators. But they say, you know, crashes like these two in Ethiopia and Indonesia are terribly tragic, heartbreaking. And the company says it always learns from such incidents to make the airplanes that they build even safer than they already were.

CORNISH: What about the pilots? Are they confident that this is the right fix? And I don't know. Has the FAA weighed in on when it might approve the upgrades?

SCHAPER: Well, I've spoken with pilots from American Airlines, which is one of the airlines that flies the Max 8, and I wouldn't quite call them satisfied yet. They have a little more confidence in Boeing than they may have several months ago. They feel much better informed about the software system, and they feel better trained. They feel like they're getting some improvements in the training process. But then some of them have actually tested the software themselves.

So they're feeling a little bit more confident. I know United Airlines has put out a statement saying it's optimistic in these software updates. But the FAA has not begun its process of reviewing it. They've worked alongside Boeing as it made these changes. And the FAA - it could take a long time for them to actually - for these regulators to approve and get these planes flying again.

CORNISH: That's NPR's David Schaper. David, thank you.

SCHAPER: My pleasure, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.