Second Boeing 737 Max crash raises questions about airplane automation

MIT Technology Review reports:

The 737 Max has bigger engines than the original 737, which make it 14% more fuel efficient than the previous generation. As the trade publication Air Current explains, the position and shape of the new engines changed how the aircraft handles, giving the nose a tendency to tip upward in some situations, which could cause the plane to stall. The new “maneuvering characteristics augmentation system” was designed to counteract that tendency.

Did these more efficient engines—and the changes they necessitated to the airplane’s automation systems—compromise the aircraft’s safety? As sociologist Charles Perrow wrote in his classic 1984 book Normal Accidents, new air-safety technologies don’t always make airplanes safer, even if they work just as well as they are supposed to. Instead of improving safety, innovations can allow airlines “to run greater risks in search of increased performance.”

A high-ranking Boeing official told the Wall Street Journal that “the company had decided against disclosing more details to cockpit crews due to concerns about inundating average pilots with too much information—and significantly more technical data—than they needed or could digest.”

But what good is a safety system that’s too intricate for highly trained professional airline pilots to understand? Each new automatic device, Perrow wrote, might solve some problems only to introduce new, more subtle ones. Make the system too complicated, he said, and it’s inevitable that regulators will lose track of which pilots had been told what, and that some pilots will get confused about which procedures to follow. It didn’t, he said, make much sense to blame pilots in cases like this. Pilot error, he said, “is a convenient catch-all.” But it’s the complexity of the system that’s really to blame.

The Lion Air crash—and the news that some pilots may not have been given all the information they needed about the new systems on board—caused an uproar among those who fly the 737 Max. As the Seattle Times reported, one American Airlines pilot wondered: “I’ve been flying the MAX-8 a couple times per month for almost a year now, and I’m sitting here thinking, what the hell else don’t I know about this thing?” [Continue reading…]

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