As the pilots of the doomed Boeing jets in Ethiopia and Indonesia fought to regulate their planes, they lacked two notable security options of their cockpits.
One cause: Boeing charged additional for them.
For Boeing and different plane producers, the apply of charging to improve an ordinary aircraft might be profitable. Top airways around the globe should pay handsomely to have the jets they order fitted with personalized add-ons.
Sometimes these non-obligatory options contain aesthetics or consolation, like premium seating, fancy lighting or additional bogs. But different options contain communication, navigation or security programs, and are extra elementary to the aircraft’s operations.
Many airways, particularly low-cost carriers like Indonesia’s Lion Air, have opted to not purchase them — and regulators don’t require them.
Now, within the wake of the 2 lethal crashes involving the identical jet mannequin, Boeing will make a type of security options commonplace as a part of a repair to get the planes within the air once more.
It will not be but identified what induced the crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10 and Lion Air Flight 610 5 months earlier, each after erratic takeoffs. But investigators are whether or not a brand new software program system added to keep away from stalls in Boeing’s 737 Max collection could have been partly accountable. Faulty knowledge from sensors on the Lion Air aircraft could have induced the system, identified as MCAS, to malfunction, authorities investigating that crash suspect.
Federal prosecutors are investigating the event of the Boeing 737 Max jet, in response to an individual briefed on the matter. As a part of the federal investigation, the F.B.I. can also be supporting the Department of Transportation’s inspector common in its inquiry, stated one other particular person with information of the matter.
The Justice Department stated that it doesn’t verify or deny the existence of any investigations. Boeing declined to touch upon the inquiry.
The jet’s software program system takes readings from certainly one of two vanelike gadgets referred to as angle of assault sensors that decide how a lot the aircraft’s nostril is pointing up or down relative to oncoming air. When MCAS detects that the aircraft is pointing up at a harmful angle, it may possibly routinely push down the nostril of the aircraft in an effort to stop the aircraft from stalling.
Boeing’s non-obligatory security options, partially, may have helped the pilots detect any faulty readings. One of the non-obligatory upgrades, the angle of assault indicator, shows the readings of the 2 sensors. The different, referred to as a disagree mild, is activated if these sensors are at odds with each other.
Boeing will quickly replace the MCAS software program, and also will make the disagree mild commonplace on all new 737 Max planes, according to a person familiar with the changes, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they have not been made public. Boeing started moving on the software fix and the equipment change before the crash in the Ethiopia.
The angle of attack indicator will remain an option that airlines can buy. Neither feature was mandated by the Federal Aviation Administration. All 737 Max jets have been grounded.
“They’re critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install,” said Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst at the aviation consultancy Leeham. “Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”
[After a Lion Air 737 Max crashed in October, questions about the plane arose.]
Earlier this week, Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief executive, said the company was working to make the 737 Max safer.
“As part of our standard practice following any accident, we examine our aircraft design and operation, and when appropriate, institute product updates to further improve safety,” he said in a statement.
Add-on features can be big moneymakers for plane manufacturers.
In 2013, around the time Boeing was starting to market its 737 Max 8, an airline would expect to spend about $800,000 to $2 million on various options for such a narrow-body aircraft, according to a report by Jackson Square Aviation, an aircraft leasing firm in San Francisco. That would be about 5 percent of the plane’s final price.
[The F.A.A.’s approval of the Boeing jet has come under scrutiny.]
Boeing charges extra, for example, for a backup fire extinguisher in the cargo hold. Past incidents have shown that a single extinguishing system may not be enough to put out flames that spread rapidly through the plane. Regulators in Japan require airlines there to install backup fire extinguishing systems, but the F.A.A. does not.
“There are so many things that should not be optional, and many airlines want the cheapest airplane you can get,” said Mark H. Goodrich, an aviation lawyer and former engineering test pilot. “And Boeing is able to say, ‘Hey, it was available.’”
But what Boeing doesn’t say, he added, is that it has become “a great profit center” for the manufacturer.
Both Boeing and its airline customers have taken pains to keep these options, and prices, out of the public eye. Airlines frequently redact details of the features they opt to pay for — or exclude — from their filings with financial regulators. Boeing declined to disclose the full menu of safety features it offers as options on the 737 Max, or how much they cost.
But one unredacted filing from 2003 for a previous version of the 737 shows that Gol Airlines, a Brazilian carrier, paid $6,700 extra for oxygen masks for its crew, and $11,900 for an advanced weather radar system control panel. Gol did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The three American airlines that bought the 737 Max each took a different approach to outfitting the cockpits.
American Airlines, which ordered 100 of the planes and has 24 in its fleet, bought both the angle of attack indicator and the disagree light, the company said.
Southwest Airlines, which ordered 280 of the planes and counts 36 in its fleet so far, had already purchased the disagree alert option, and it also installed an angle of attack indicator in a display mounted above the pilots’ heads. After the Lion Air crash, Southwest said it would modify its 737 Max fleet to place the angle of attack indicator on the pilots’ main computer screens.
United Airlines, which ordered 137 of the planes and has received 14, did not select the indicators or the disagree light. A United spokesman said the airline does not include the features because its pilots use other data to fly the plane.
Boeing is making other changes to the MCAS software.
When it was rolled out, MCAS took readings from only one sensor on any given flight, leaving the system vulnerable to a single point of failure. One theory in the Lion Air crash is that MCAS was receiving faulty data from one of the sensors, prompting an unrecoverable nose dive.
In the software update that Boeing says is coming soon, MCAS will be modified to take readings from both sensors. If there is a meaningful disagreement between the readings, MCAS will be disabled.
Incorporating the disagree light and the angle of attack indicators on all planes would be a welcome move, safety experts said, and would alert pilots — as well as maintenance staff who service a plane after a problematic flight — to issues with the sensors.
The alert, especially, would bring attention to a sensor malfunction, and warn pilots they should prepare to shut down the MCAS if it activated erroneously, said Peter Lemme, an avionics and satellite-communications consultant and former Boeing flight controls engineer.
“In the heat of the moment, it certainly would help,” he said.
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