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Boeing promised a 737 software fix last year, but pilots are still waiting

Natalie Kitroeff, Jack Nicas & Thomas Kaplan | NYT/ 16 Mar 19 | 01:59 AM

Weeks after a deadly crash involving a Boeing plane last October, company officials met separately with the pilot unions at Southwest Airlines and American Airlines. The officials said they planned to update the software for their 737 MAX jets, the plane involved in the disaster, by around the end of 2018.

It was the last time the Southwest pilots union heard from Boeing, and months later, the carriers are still waiting for a fix. After a second 737 MAX crashed, on Sunday in Ethiopia, United States regulators said the software update would be ready by April. “Boeing was going to have a software fix in the next five to six weeks," said Michael Michaelis, the top safety official at the American Airlines pilots union and a Boeing 737 captain. “We told them, ‘Yeah, it can’t drag out.’ And well, here we are."

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This delay is now part of the intense scrutiny over Boeing’s response after the first air disaster, a Lion Air accident that killed 189 people in Indonesia. The second crash, involving an Ethiopian Airlines flight that killed 157 people, bore similarities to the first, pointing to potential problems with the automated system that requires the update.

The planned fix was “designed to detect the problem," said Jon Weaks, the president of Southwest’s pilot union, “and keep it from recurring." Boeing officials told Southwest union leaders that they didn’t believe any extra training was necessary beyond informing the pilots of how the software fix would function. The potential similarities between the two crashes were central to regulators’ decision to ground the whole 737 MAX line, a family of planes that has been in service for nearly two years. Boeing is now in damage control mode, as carriers cancel flights and try to limit disruptions. Boeing declined to comment for this article.Along with the grounding, Boeing has been forced to halt deliveries of the jets, one of its best-selling planes. Authorities are trying to determine exactly what went wrong, while a senior Democratic lawmaker is planning to examine Boeing’s communications with its regulators.

The lawmaker, Representative Peter A. DeFazio of Oregon, the chairman of the House transportation committee, has said he will investigate the Federal Aviation Administration’s certification of the 737 MAX, including why the regulator did not mandate more substantial training for pilots.

To qualify to fly the plane, the pilots at American were given a 56-minute iPad training and about a dozen white papers on the differences between the MAX aircraft and previous 737 jets, union officials said. Weaks of Southwest said his members were trained with an e-learning module on a company-issued iPad that consisted of under three hours of video presentations.

©The New York Times News Service 2019

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