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The Boeing 737 Max crisis goes way beyond software

Quartz logo Quartz 23/03/2019 Tim Fernholz
An aerial photo shows Boeing 737 MAX airplanes parked on the tarmac at the Boeing Factory in Renton, Washington, U.S. March 21, 2019. © Provided by Atlantic Media, Inc. An aerial photo shows Boeing 737 MAX airplanes parked on the tarmac at the Boeing Factory in Renton, Washington, U.S. March 21, 2019.

There is no small complexity in the task of carrying hundreds of people through the sky at hundreds of miles an hour. More than 100,000 airliners take off and land each day, but two deadly air crashes in six months have shocked passengers, regulators, and industry alike.

Crashes of Boeing’s 737 Max in Indonesia and Ethiopia offer a window into all that complexity. Boeing and its CEO Dennis Muilenburg want the story to be simple: a software problem that can be fixed with a quick patch. But that doesn’t capture the mistakes made by Boeing and American aviation regulators in certifying the plane to carry passengers.

This picture taken on May 15, 2018 shows a Garuda Indonesia Boeing 737 Max 8 at Jakarta International airport in Jakarta. - Indonesia's national carrier Garuda will call off a multi-billion-dollar order for 49 Boeing 737 Max 8 jets after two fatal crashes involving the plane, the company said, in what is thought to be the first formal cancellation for the model. (Photo by IHWAN IDAMIN HARAHAP / AFP)        (Photo credit should read IHWAN IDAMIN HARAHAP/AFP/Getty Images) © Getty This picture taken on May 15, 2018 shows a Garuda Indonesia Boeing 737 Max 8 at Jakarta International airport in Jakarta. - Indonesia's national carrier Garuda will call off a multi-billion-dollar order for 49 Boeing 737 Max 8 jets after two fatal crashes involving the plane, the company said, in what is thought to be the first formal cancellation for the model. (Photo by IHWAN IDAMIN HARAHAP / AFP) (Photo credit should read IHWAN IDAMIN HARAHAP/AFP/Getty Images) By now, you may well have heard of MCAS, software that automatically pitches 737 Maxes downward to avoid stalling in mid-air. It exists only because Boeing wanted to upgrade its 737 without changing it fundamentally—so it added new engines that made the aircraft more likely to stall, rather than starting from scratch. In the emerging picture of the two accidents, the software only failed because the mechanical sensor it depended on also malfunctioned.

But all that pales next to what will likely be the highlight of investigations into the incident: the training and user experience of the people in the cockpits. Pilots did not have sufficient training to understand how MCAS worked, and two vital safety features—a display showing what the sensor detected, and a light warning if other sensors disagreed—were optional extras (paywall).

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 14: A Qantas commercial plane takes off at Sydney Airport on March 14, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has suspended operations of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Australia following a deadly crash that killed 157 people in Ethiopia on Sunday 10 March. Up until CASA's decision Fiji Airways was the only airline flying the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in Australia after Singapore's SilkAir announced it was temporarily ground its six aircraft on Tuesday. Safety concerns about the model of aircraft were first raised in October 2018 after a Lion Air flight in Indonesia crashed, killing all 189 people aboard. Since Sunday's crash in Ethiopia, Boeing has announced plans to update the aircrafts software. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images) © Getty SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 14: A Qantas commercial plane takes off at Sydney Airport on March 14, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has suspended operations of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 in Australia following a deadly crash that killed 157 people in Ethiopia on Sunday 10 March. Up until CASA's decision Fiji Airways was the only airline flying the Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in Australia after Singapore's SilkAir announced it was temporarily ground its six aircraft on Tuesday. Safety concerns about the model of aircraft were first raised in October 2018 after a Lion Air flight in Indonesia crashed, killing all 189 people aboard. Since Sunday's crash in Ethiopia, Boeing has announced plans to update the aircrafts software. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images) Minimising training and cockpit changes was an economic decision: The upgraded plane would be more attractive to potential purchasers if they did not have to spend expensive hours retraining their pilots. The Federal Aviation Administration determined Boeing’s training and safety plans were fine. Now, investigators want to know why. The answers could be costly for Boeing, and for America’s reputation as a leader in the safe deployment of aviation technology.

Software is easy to blame, because for many people computer science is a mystery. But these crashes emerged from an experience we’re all familiar with: the pressure to deliver on a tight timetable, the temptation to cut corners, and the hope that in a big, complex world, one little kludge won’t mess up the whole program.

Read more of Quartz’s coverage of the Boeing 737 Max crisis.

Watch: Boeing CEO: Software Update for Max 737s Soon [Bloomberg]

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