Crashed Planes Lacked Key Safety Features Because Boeing Charged Extra To Install Them

The features would have helped pilots detect erroneous information readings, and could have possibly prevented crashes.

A Boeing 737 MAX-8 takes off.
Stephen Brachear / Getty Images

The features would have helped pilots detect erroneous information readings, and could have possibly prevented crashes.

Pilots in the two recent Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes were deprived of crucial safety features which Boeing charged extra to install, according to new reporting from The New York Times.

Boeing chose to include an angle of attack indicator and disagree light as optional extras in its newest jet, the 737 MAX 8. While not required by the FAA to fly, they can provide essential information while in the air. The angle of attack indicator displays how high the plane’s nose is tilted, while the disagree light notifies the pilots when different sensors across the plane are giving different readings.

While no definitive cause has been established for either of the two crashes, investigators believe that an anti-stall software system added into the MAX 8 may have played a role. An angle of attack disagree light could have helped to alert the pilots to faulty instrument readings, and may have allowed the pilots to correct against the plane’s computers pushing the nose downward.

The FAA grounded all 737 MAX 8 and 9 planes last week, per The Washington Post, in response to the two crashes and continued safety concerns about the aircraft. Officials in other countries around the world like China, Canada, and the European Union had already grounded the aircraft before the FAA made the call. The FBI has joined a Department of Transportation investigation into the certification process for the 737 MAX jets, per NBC News.

After the second crash, Boeing issued a software update to correct the anti-stall malfunction — and opted to make the disagree light a standard feature in all jets. The angle of attack indicator will remain an optional feature. However, the move disguises larger problems with the company’s add-on model.

According to The New York Times, Jackson Square Aviation, an aircraft leasing firm in San Francisco, said that airlines would spend between $800,000 and $2 million on optional upgrades for a given plane in 2013 — the year Boeing first began marketing the 737 MAX 8. That sum can reach five percent of a plane’s initial purchase price.

And while many of the upgrades are extra amenities, like more bathrooms and expanded legroom, some — like the aforementioned angle of attack indicator and disagree light — are key safety features. Boeing also charges carriers extra for a second fire extinguisher in the cargo hold, a feature the Japanese government has mandated airlines install for safety reason. A 2003 filing for an older version of the 737, provided via Sec.gov, shows Gol Airlines paid extra to buy oxygen masks for its crew and an “advanced weather radar system control panel.”

Yet despite the safety dangers, optional add-ons are a major moneymaker for airplane manufacturers. Mark H. Goodrich, an aviation lawyer and former engineering test pilot, explained further.

“There are so many things that should not be optional, and many airlines want the cheapest airplane you can get. And Boeing is able to say, ‘Hey, it was available.'”

Bjorn Fehrm, an analyst at aviation consultancy Leeham, addressed the specific example of the angle of attack indicator and disagree light.

“They’re critical, and cost almost nothing for the airlines to install. Boeing charges for them because it can. But they’re vital for safety.”

Dennis A. Muilenburg, Boeing’s chief executive, issued the following statement in response to safety concerns over his company’s planes.

“As part of our standard practice following any accident, we examine our aircraft design and operation, and when appropriate, institute product updates to further improve safety.”

It remains to be seen if Boeing will take any other action to help ensure the safety of 737 MAX aircraft in the future.