When Regulation Falters

Article By : David Benjamin

Orthodoxy and dogmatism are all well and good until people start dying.


Boeing and the FAA talked themselves out of this being a catastrophic failure mode, justifying no single point failure protection. Until the crashes.”

— Dr. Philip Koopman, Carnegie-Mellon University


MADISON, Wis. — This weekend, I encountered an item about dissension among “young” Republicans on the issue of climate change. Many of these conservative kids question the adamant GOP position denying absolutely that the earth is warming at a rate that threatens imminent global cataclysm.

The young Republicans’ concerns suggest that right-wing orthodoxy on this vital subject is softening. But it’s still pretty much the rock that sits across from the hard place. The New York Times article (“Climate could be an electoral bomb…”) went on to say that the GOP’s pro-environmental wing, while agreeing that “government can’t be trusted to solve climate change,” contends that “market solutions” can stem the millions of tons of greenhouse gases pouring into the atmosphere.

Spokesmen for this approach cited only one palliative measure — a carbon tax. This set my irony radar tingling. As I recall, carbon taxes were proposed long ago by Republicans when Republicans agreed that climate change is serious stuff. Soon after, of course, they changed their minds and became violently opposed to a carbon tax because, well, it’s a tax. All taxes, as we know, are anathema to orthodox conservatives.

Orthodoxy is a bigger issue than global warming. The dogma of the right opposes any sort of government action to solve big national problems. The private sector — although often culpable for causing or exacerbating crises like global warming — is nevertheless best equipped, according to Republican orthodoxy, to fix things… eventually.

If this fox-guarding-the-henhouse approach sounds a little counterintuitive to you, you’re probably a Democrat. Or a young Republican?

The realm of technology offers perhaps a more vivid illustration of the limits of anti-regulatory passion. My case in point is Boeing’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). This now-infamous device went into Boeing’s new 737 MAX aircraft. As we know, the failure of MCAS’ single sensor — for which there was no backup — triggered two crashes that killed 346 passengers and crew.

Since then, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), which had ceded its inspection duties to Boeing employees, has discovered that besides the fatal flaw in MCAS, the 737 MAX’s non-redundant computer system is subject to possible interference by “cosmic rays striking the circuitry” at high altitudes. This revelation, detailed in a thorough summary by Dominic Gates in the Seattle Times (“Newly stringent FAA tests spur a software redesign…”), surprised both Boeing and the FAA. It was discovered only after the FAA was forced into a renewed regimen of close regulation by those horrific Lion Air and Ethiopian Airline crashes.

The software “glitch” discovered by FAA pilots running simulations was correctable manually, in the cockpit, within three seconds. However, within three seconds, one of three simulations resulted in the airplane going down. A 33-percent failure rate — which translates into the deaths of as many as 200 passengers — is appropriately deemed “catastrophic” by the FAA.

As a result, Boeing is not only working to double up its MCAS sensors, but to install on every 737 MAX two computers working simultaneously. This will ensure that a potentially deadly bit-flip in one computer can be discerned and corrected by the other — in less than three seconds.

To be clear, this is an expensive retrofit to an already costly airliner. At this moment, every 737 MAX has been grounded for five months. These planes will not be certified safe by the FAA for several more months, after which thousands of potential passengers will be deeply reluctant to climb onboard. The accumulated cost to Boeing, in reduced sales, in airlines’ defections to Airbus products, and in passenger trust, is — in FAA terms —catastrophic.

USS Hartford

The USS Hartford in the Arctic in 2018. The photo is from a report published by the US Department of Defense called “Changing Environment Means Changing Arctic Strategy.” The article describes how climate change is leading to a militarization of the Arctic. (source: Department of Defense, Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Michael H. Lee)

Which brings us back around to anti-regulatory orthodoxy. Indeed, if the world’s mightiest manufacturer of passenger aircraft cannot swiftly correct the two disastrous defects in its newest and shiniest product and simultaneously restore the willingness of travelers to strap themselves into its fleet of 737 MAXes, the “regulatory state” could kill Boeing.

On the other hand, when regulation faltered and the FAA trusted a company whose executives and shareholders are naturally more focused on revenue than safety, Boeing was complicit in killing 346 people.

In his Seattle Times analysis, Gates quoted Peter Lemme, a former Boeing flight-controls engineer and avionics expert: “I’m overjoyed to hear Boeing is doing this. It’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

Gates also quoted David Hinds, a retired Boeing flight-controls and autopilot expert, who said, wistfully, “I’d like to think you’d catch this on first pass. They should have looked harder.”

This insight is the heart of the issue. If ever events proved the wisdom of intensive, exhaustive and patient regulation by disinterested experts — of looking harder — the adventure of the 737 MAX is the star witness. Up to its fuselage in red ink, Boeing is now galloping toward an October deadline to get its MAX fleet airborne. The check on this rush to profit is not Boeing’s moral commitment to safety at all costs. It is, rather, a handful of nitpicking government inspectors and neutral test pilots, working for the FAA. Working for the government. Working for taxpayers.

They study software code and tear down delicate bits of aircraft hardware not on behalf of capitalist purity nor in pursuit of a libertarian utopia. They serve neither Boeing nor a political agenda. Their boss and their responsibility is those trusting travelers who place their lives every day in the hands of two flyboys in the cockpit and a team of excellent but fallible engineers who have the power to both install computers and sensors and — for the sake of the corporate bottom line, on orders from upstairs — take them away.

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