A Boeing 737 Max aircraft.
Boeing
  • Boeing told pilots after its first fatal 737 Max crash that it had sold a safety feature as an optional extra in the planes because many airlines felt it would "confuse" pilots.
  • A Boeing executive told members of the pilots union for American Airlines that most carriers do not buy the angle of attack indicator because they would have to train pilots to use it.
  • The investigations into both crashes have suggested that better information from the plane's instruments may have helped the pilots prevent the crash.
  • Boeing defended its decision, arguing that the indicator is not essential for pilot safety. Union representatives said that pilots should have the maximum amount of information possible.
  • You can listen to audio of the exchange below.
  • For more, go to Business Insider SA.

After the first fatal crash of its one of its 737 Max planes, a Boeing executive told concerned pilots that one of its safety features came only as a paid-for extra because airlines worried that it would "confuse" pilots.

An audio recording of a November 2018 meeting between union reps and Boeing executives, shared with Business Insider, demonstrates that the company was keen to downplay concerns about the 737 Max jet.

At the time of the recording, one 737 Max had gone down - Lion Air's flight 610, which crashed into the Java Sea. Five months after that crash, a 737 Max operated by Ethiopian Airlines also crashed.

The executive was telling representatives of the union for American Airlines pilots - the Allied Pilots Association - why it had not installed an system known as an angle of attack indicator.

The cockpit of a Boeing 737 Max.
Boeing

His argument was that the extra safety measure was not popular with airlines, who did not want to train pilots to use it, and thought it may "confuse" them while flying.

He said:

"A lot of airlines don't want the AOA gauge because the pilot's not trained to fly with it and they feel as if it could confuse the pilots.

"And they don't want to spend any training time to train the pilots on how to operate the AOA. I'm comfortable with AOA, I love it, but most of the airlines don't like it.

"They think it would maybe distract the pilots and confuse them."

It is not clear from the audio exactly who was speaking. According to The New York Times, Boeing employees at the meeting included Mike Sinnett, a Boeing vice president; Craig Bomben, Boeing test pilot, and John Moloney; a senior Boeing lobbyist.

Here is an audio clip of the exchange:

The full audio is at the end of this article.

The angle of attack (AOA) indicator was not installed on either of the 737 Max planes which crashed. Between the two disasters, 346 people were killed.

The indicator produces measurements which show the plane's orientation in the sky - its angle of attack. This can alert pilots if the plane is pointing in the wrong direction.

Boeing has said in public statements that the system is not necessary to fly the plane safely.

People stand near debris at the crash site of the Ethiopia Airlines flight in Ethiopia, on March 11, 2019.
MICHAEL TEWELDE/AFP/Getty Images

The AOA indicator is also a constituent part of a broader safety system that can alert the pilots to incorrect readings.

The sensor is used to provide a data feed for the AOA "disagree" light - a warning indicator that alerts pilots when the two sensors measuring a plane's angle of attack are in conflict.

Without multiple streams of data, the disagree system cannot notice a discrepancy.

Since the crashes, Boeing has admitted that it wanted the disagree light to be a standard feature. However, when they realised it relied on an optional component - the AOA indicator - the company conducted a safety review and decided to leave the plane without this system until the next planned software update.

Preliminary reports from the investigations into both crashes suggested that there were problems with the angle of attack readings.

Investigators believe these triggered an automated system on the plane -the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) - to force the nose of the plane down.

Both flights made abrupt descents before crashing. The Lion Air flight ultimately hit the sea, while the Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed into the ground, leaving a crater 9 metre deep and 39 metre long.

After the Lion Air crash, Boeing conducted a review to work out whether the absence of the light was a safety risk. It concluded that it was not.

Following the second crash, Boeing committed to including the disagree light as standard, but said it would be incorporated it in a way that does not require the AOA indicator, leaving that feature as optional.

The Federal Aviation Administration said in May that Boeing had briefed them on the lack of working alert light in November, and that FAA officials considered the issue to be "low risk."

Nonetheless, it noted that Boeing waited a year to tell the FAA and airlines about the issue.

A man examines a pile of twisted metal gathered by workers during the continuing recovery efforts at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 on March 11, 2019 in Bishoftu, Ethiopia
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

A member of the APA said in the November meeting with Boeing that American Airlines decided to include the optional AOA sensor because of pressure from its members.

"By the way, the APA required them to get that," they said.

But the APA members at the meeting were still critical of Boeing's communication around the plane's software and its angle of attack system.

"We flat-out deserve to know what is on our airplanes," one pilot said.

At another point in the exchange, a Boeing representative said that he didn't think a deep understanding of the MCAS system would have prevented a disaster, given the low chance of it malfunctioning.

"I don't know that understanding this system would've changed the outcome on this," he said.

In response, the APA members argued that they wanted more information regardless. They criticised Boeing for not including the system in its training or manuals.

One pilot said this had shaken his trust in Boeing, which had previously been strong.

Describing Boeing's attitude, he said the company seemed to think that for "the average pilot, that's a little bit too much information for him to understand and be able to comprehend."

"I have a hard time with that," he added.

The APA said that its president, Dan Carry; its vice president, Tim Hamel; its safety committee chairman, Mike Michaelis; and its communications committee chairman, Dennis Tajer, were among those present.

In response to the criticism, a Boeing executive said the company was "looking at" changes it could make to the software to make the disagree light work without the optional extra AOA sensor. Six months later, in May 2019, Boeing committed to making that change.

In a statement to Business Insider about the recording, a Boeing spokesman said: "We are focused on working with pilots, airlines and global regulators to certify the updates on the MAX and provide additional training and education to safely return the planes to flight."

Captain Daniel F. Carey, the president of APA, said in a statement to Business Insider: "American Airlines pilots have been pressing Boeing for answers because we owe it to our passengers and the 346 people who lost their lives to do everything we can to prevent another tragedy.

"Boeing did not treat the 737 Max 8 situation like the emergency it was," he said.

Full audio of the exchange:

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