This was the year we learned how easily old tech platforms adopted the flaws of the new ones
The biggest tech story of 2019 wasn’t Facebook’s questionable advertising rules or the plight of its content moderators. Nor was it Google’s inability to reign in the far right on YouTube. It wasn’t even Amazon’s quick exit from — and eventual slink back to — New York City, or its appalling labor practices. The biggest tech story of 2019 was about Boeing, the airline manufacturer.
In March, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed shortly after takeoff outside Addis Ababa, killing all 149 passengers and 8 crew members on board. Flight 302 was the latest generation of Boeing’s longtime 737 workhorse line: the Boeing 737 Max 8. The crash drew immediate comparisons to that of a previous flight, which had similarly crashed shortly after takeoff off the Indonesian coast in late 2018, killing 189 people. The Max 8 had a problem.
Investigators soon found the fault to lie with Boeing’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. Essentially a stall prevention mechanism, MCAS used sensors at the front of the plane to detect its angle of attack, meaning its position relative to airflow that generates lift. If that angle became too great, suggesting the plane was about to stall, MCAS automatically adjusted the horizontal stabilizer fin to force the nose of the plane back down. MCAS was theoretically supposed to avert disaster, not cause it. But in the case of both crashes, MCAS is believed to have forced the plane’s nose down due to erroneous information from sensors, causing them to crash.
Boeing pushed to develop the 737 Max in 2011, out of a desperate need to catch up to Airbus and offer a modern alternative to the A320Neo, which debuted a year earlier. But in its push to stay competitive, “Boeing focused on speed instead of rigor, cost-control instead of innovation, and efficiency instead of transparency,” Darryl Campbell wrote at The Verge. It also seemed to forget about people. Through Boeing we saw how a company that for decades had safely developed a legacy platform, suffers from the same critical flaws as those building the new ones.
To entice airlines to purchase the Max 8, Boeing set out to ensure the design of the 737 Max allowed it to share a common Federal Aviation Administration “type certificate” with its predecessors. It would mean that pilots who had previously been trained on older versions of the 737 would easily qualify to fly the Max, too. Not only would the new plane allow airlines to save on fuel, but also on pilot training — or so the thinking went.
But Boeing engineers ran into a problem. The new Max engines were so big, they couldn’t fit where the engines as on the former 737s. They had to be moved forward and up. But this meant that, in a steep climb, the engines would create lift — and that it would handle differently than its predecessors. MCAS was meant to compensate. It would, Boeing says, “enhance the pitch stability of the airplane — so that it feels like other 737s.”
Ideally, MCAS would have been one of the many elements of the Max reviewed by federal regulators. But, as the New York Times reported in July, the FAA “eventually handed over responsibility for approval of MCAS to the manufacturer.” Then, late in the plane’s development, Boeing changed MCAS. “While the original version relied on data from at least two types of sensors, the final version used just one, leaving the system without a critical safeguard,” the Times reported. Nevertheless, the FAA approved the plane in 2017.
But since at least 2016, pilots had been warning that something about the new 737 Max was awry. Nobody listened. Boeing notably did not train pilots on how MCAS operated, leaving them ignorant on how to challenge the system.
It’s this apparent thoughtlessness with regards to human beings in the name of continued growth, further profit, and a competitive edge where Boeing most resembles its newer tech platform counterparts like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. This is particularly true when it comes to how users — in Boeing’s case, pilots — behave when faced with too much information delivered by a hyper-logical but unintelligible computer program: They often experience an unpredictable breakdown of comprehension.
In its report this year on the 737 Max, the National Transportation Safety Board noted the bewildering atmosphere in the cockpit when MCAS went rogue, and how little Boeing had done to prepare pilots. Boeing “underestimated the effect that a malfunction of new automated software in the aircraft could have on the environment in the cockpit,” the Times reported. “They completely discounted the human factor component, the startle effect, the tsunami of alerts in a system that we had no knowledge of that was powerful, relentless, and terrifying in the end,” Dennis Tajer, a spokesman for the American Airlines pilots union, told the Times.
It’s a story about how capitalism operates in the 21st century: How it measures success, how it (dis)regards people, and what it rewards — or better yet, what it doesn’t punish.
But the concerns recently raised around the new tech platforms are echoed elsewhere in the Boeing story, too. Like how a flawed design was rushed to market, and only acknowledged as problematic or dangerous after something had already gone horribly wrong. Or how Boeing’s cozy relationship with the FAA essentially meant it was allowed to self-regulate and determine its product’s parameters without proper external, unbiased oversight in the public interest.
Even Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg’s remarks to Congress in October hit similar notes as those Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg delivered in April. “We have learned and are still learning from these accidents… We know we made mistakes and got some things wrong. We own that, and we are fixing them,” Muilenberg told the Senate. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake. It was my mistake, and I’m sorry,” Zuckerberg told the House.
Tracing the story of Boeing’s 737 Max tragedy this year was unnerving. Like revelations about Facebook, Google, or Amazon’s business practices, it became very clear that, despite software lying at its heart, this isn’t really a technology story at all. Instead, it’s a much bigger and frankly scarier one. It’s a story about how capitalism operates in the 21st century: How it measures success, how it (dis)regards people, and what it rewards — or better yet, what it doesn’t punish. It’s a story about how the logic of the new tech business era isn’t limited to new tech businesses — this is just the way things are, or soon will be, everywhere.
2020 may bring the 737 Max 8 back into the skies, and with time Boeing’s reputation will likely recover. More than anything, this is why Boeing is the tech story of 2019. It offers a lesson in perspective when considering whether to regulate or simply control the likes of Facebook, Google, or Amazon — how much power our democratic institutions actually have, and how forceful and diligent they need to constantly be to exercise it over an oligopoly. There are only so many American companies that make planes, and Boeing is the biggest. Boeing will survive — whether we like it or not.
All Rights Reserved for Colin Horgan