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Why Boeing’s problem with the 737 MAX jet keeps getting worse

Boeing announced Wednesday a pledge of up to $100 million for families and communities affected by the two recent crashes of its 737 MAX planes. Both accidents were found to involve software and engineering problems the company is now struggling to solve. Jeffrey Brown talks to Miles O’Brien about the technical complexity, a “systemic” failure at Boeing over safety and the public relations impact.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Boeing announced today that it will pledge up to $100 million to families and communities affected by the two crashes involving its 737 MAX planes.

    The accidents were found to share similar software problems. Boeing is now trying to solve those technical and engineering issues. But it is struggling with other big questions too.

    That's the focus of our Leading Edge segment with Jeffrey Brown.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Lion Air Flight 610 went down after takeoff in Indonesia last October, killing 189 people. A second crash, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, occurred in March, killing all 157 people on board.

    Boeing now faces numerous lawsuits, as well as regulatory challenges, to clear the plane for flying.

    Joining us from Paris is science and aviation correspondent Miles O'Brien.

    Miles, welcome to you.

    So, this latest move first, the $100 million fund, what is it intended to be used for and how will it be administered?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, it's, in the grand scheme of things, Jeff, not a huge amount of money. It's about the cost of a 737 MAX, perhaps coincidentally.

    Put it in the realm of public relations. This is a company that, in the wake of these two accidents, tried to point the finger at the flight crews, and that didn't go over well, given the evident design problems that were a part of the 737 MAX.

    And this money will go for education funds for the children of the victims and some money for the families. But if you do the math, it's a very small amount of money per person. No one who takes this money is precluding themselves from further legal action, I should point out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And these lawsuits are still out there. While this is another acknowledgment of some kind of responsibility, the financial liability is still out there.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Yes, there's the lawsuit liability.

    There's the fact that you have got a lot of very unhappy customers. There's the loss of good will and future business, potentially. It's a big mess for Boeing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, given what we know about the cause of the crashes, where is the focus for Boeing now in trying to fix the problem?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, it begins with the software that was at the core of the issue.

    This was a system, an anti-stall system. And when we say stall, aerodynamic stall, meaning a system that was designed to keep the nose from pointing too high and the airplane losing aerodynamic lift.

    The software that was put in there to ensure that the nose was put down was determined to be flawed. And so part of the process has been to reexamine that and rewrite that software.

    In addition, they added a dual path of sensors that feed the information to that system, redundancy being the great idea. But as they have gone forward at all this, it hasn't been so simple. These aircraft are so complex, and the systems so interrelated, they actually stumbled across another problem in a related system in the anti-stall function, which requires another fix, which actually might even require a hardware fix.

    So, there are 500 of these aircraft out there that might need new computer chips. So, as they peel away the onion, it just gets more and more complex, Jeff.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    So, in the meantime, these MAX jets remain grounded. You just referred to yet another regulatory hurdle that is delaying it.

    Is there a forecast for when they might fly again?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    What has been said publicly is September.

    But given the fact that, as they go deeper and deeper into the problems, and trying to fix them, it's like squeezing a balloon, Jeff. It creates other issues at the other end because of the complexity and the interrelatedness of all of this.

    And then, on top of that, you have this public relations issue. Will the public be comfortable in getting on a 737 MAX, given all that has transpired? That's a big open question.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And there have been recent investigations looking at larger problems for Boeing.

    So, what is the potential impact for the company and its future?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    It's hard to measure it right now, when you consider the legal liability, the public relations liability, and the fact that the technical issues have not yet been ironed out.

    And you look at some of the problems that have been documented in a systemic fashion for this company, what you have here is a company that is in the business of making money, profit off of airplanes. There is always an opposite — opposing force when it comes to safety.

    Safety costs money. Safety hits the bottom line. Now, Boeing doesn't want to build an unsafe aircraft, but in a very competitive environment, trying to move quickly to get a plane to market, as they were with the 737 MAX, there is tremendous pressure to cut corners. And we may be seeing evidence that there were too many corners cut here.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And just briefly, Miles, is there an impact we're seeing on consumers, on the airlines that we fly?

  • Miles O’Brien:

    Well, with the 737 MAX grounded, there's no indication that people are staying home and not getting on aircraft.

    It'll be interesting to see, when the day comes that the 737 MAX is put back in service, assuming that day will come, will people be hesitant? Could this be not unlike in the 1970s? You will recall the DC-10 and the difficulties with that aircraft, never fully recovered from the fundamental technical design flaws that it evidenced.

    And it ultimately didn't survive.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Miles O'Brien, thanks, as always.

  • Miles O’Brien:

    You're welcome, Jeff.

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