Boeing Offered Crucial Warning Light as Optional Add-On for 737 Max

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Boeing knew of 737 MAX safety system glitch year before deadly crash

The feature was created to warn pilots when a key sensor might be providing incorrect information about the pitch of the plane's nose. Engineers initially believed the alert was standard in all 737 Max aircraft. "The pilots may not have known the system even existed and engaged in a futile struggle to regain control of the aircraft".

After the Sunday, March 10, Ethiopian crash that killed 157, the manufacturer grounded all the MAX 737 fleet word wide.

The crash was the worst airline disaster in Indonesia in more than two decades.

Immediately following the company's reiteration that it did not merit action in 2017, Boeing confirmed that it was brought up again in 2018 and a Safety Review Board (SRB) was convened to "consider again whether the absence of the [safety] alert from certain 737 Max flight displays presented a safety issue".

Senior Boeing leaders and the Federal Aviation Administration were not informed of the cockpit error until November 2018, after the Lion Air crash that left 189 people dead.

The FAA said the issue was "low risk", but said Boeing could have helped to "eliminate possible confusion" by letting it know earlier.

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"The board of directors is not supposed to oversee every single technical detail that goes into an airplane, but it is their job to oversee risk and to set up guardrails and make sure the company is not taking on too much risk", he said.

In manuals that Boeing gave to Southwest Airlines, the biggest operator of both the Max and 737s in general, the warning light was depicted as a standard feature just as it is on older 737s, according to Southwest spokeswoman Brandy King.

The feature at issue is known as the Angle of Attack (AOA) Disagree alert and was created to let pilots know when two different sensors were reporting conflicting data. That allowed the airline to activate the sensor-disagree warning lights on its 34 Max jets earlier this year, she said.

The software is created to give pilots information about the plane's external sensors, which could potentially pinpoint equipment failures. Boeing also broke the news of the glitch to Max operators such as Southwest Airlines in the aftermath of the initial crash.

When the discrepancy between the requirements and the software was identified, Boeing followed its standard process for determining the appropriate resolution of such issues. They criticized Boeing's original software design that chose to rely on data from a single AOA sensor, noting that a scenario in which a breakdown of the single sensor due to defects was not considered.

Boeing said Sunday that because in-house experts decided that the non-working light didn't affect safety, the company made a decision to fix the problem by disconnecting the alert from the optional indicators at the next planned update of cockpit display software.

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Boeing did not tell airlines or the FAA about this decision. The company is working on a software fix it hopes will get the planes flying again this summer.

By becoming optional, the alert had been treated in the same way as a separate indicator showing raw AOA data, which is seldom used by commercial pilots and had been an add-on for years.

Boeing maintains that the 737 Max was safe to fly even without the alert, which it says provides only "supplemental information".

Meanwhile, billionaire Warren Buffett said he would not hesitate to fly in a Boeing 737 Max airplane, despite concerns over safety issues and consequent grounding.

The Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into whether Boeing misled regulators about features on the plane including flight-control software at the heart of the crash investigations.

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