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

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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