Southwest Airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials who monitor the carrier were unaware that a standard safety feature, designed to warn pilots about malfunctioning sensors, on Boeing 737 Max jets was turned off when Southwest began flying the model in 2017, reported Andy Pastzor of the Wall Street Journal.
In earlier 737 models, the safety feature alerted pilots when a sensor called the “angle-of-attack vane” incorrectly conveyed the pitch of the plane’s nose, according to Pastzor. In the Max, it functions as such while also signaling when the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — a new automated system linked to both October’s Lion Air crash and March’s Ethiopian Airlines crash — could misfire; but these alerts were only enabled if carriers purchased additional safety features, Pastzor wrote.
Like other airlines flying the Max, Southwest didn’t learn about the change until the aftermath of the Lion Air crash, Pastzor reported.
According to WSJ’s investigation, which reviewed documents, the carrier then asked Boeing to reactivate the alerts on its Max fleet, causing FAA inspectors to contemplate grounding the Max fleet until it was determined whether or not pilots needed additional training — but the idea was quickly dropped.
Once the feature was reactivated, some FAA officials again considered grounding Southwest’s 737 Max fleet to determine whether pilots needed new training — and again, the discussions, which happened via email, were dismissed after a few days, Pastkor reporter.
Boeing has yet to specifically address why the feature was turned off, but in March, it unveiled a software fix and updated training procedures for the 737 Max, reported Business Insider’s Benjamin Zhang.
Most of the updates will be to the MCAS, which will “provide additional layers of protection if the AOA sensors provide erroneous data,” Boeing said in a release. The updates are also geared toward reducing the workload on pilots during emergency situations, Zhang reported.
“Boeing will also change the training process for pilots to add increased focus on the understanding of the 737 Max control system, MCAS functionality and related crew procedures, and the associated software changes,” Zhang wrote, adding that the training will also highlight differences between the previous generation 737 NG and the new 737 Max.
As of March, Boeing was still working with regulators to complete the certification of the software and training updates.
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