We live in an automated society.
In the 1800s, 90 percent of the population lived on farms; today it is around 1 percent.
We’re seeing jobs being automated away, and we adapt.
But what about fully automated flight controls? The October crash of a Lion Air jet off Indonesia, killing 189, raised questions about Boeing rapidly phasing in artificial intelligence throughout its newest 737 series.
In November, the FAA issued an emergency airworthiness directive for airlines operating the 737 MAX 8 and 737 MAX 9 airliners to alert them to the deadly flaw that is reported to have caused the Lion Air downing.
Yet conflict between safety and costs still permeates the U.S. aviation industry.
Just this month, news broke that Boeing and regulators are now expected to delay safety fixes for hundreds of 737 MAX jets until at least April.
In the past, the FAA did a good job of enforcing safety regulations, but today the agency faces pushback from everywhere – private pilots, business jets, mainline carriers. Nobody wants to spend money, and safety does not sell very well.
Airlines are already counting the billions of dollars in savings they might reap by ejecting human pilots.
FlyersRights.org was recently asked by eTN News whether it’s safe to fly a Southwest Airlines B737-800 aircraft from North America to Hawaii. The 800 is the immediate predecessor of the MAX series.
We said the approval process was highly questionable and dangerous.
Non ETOPS-worthy aircraft?
On Feb. 5, Southwest rushed through it’s initial validation flight to Hawaii on one of its jets to obtain an ETOPS certification to start scheduled service by the summer. A second round of test flight to Hawaii began on Thursday.
ETOPS, which stands for extended range operations for two engine airplanes, is the FAA certification that airlines need for long overwater flights.
Normally the FAA requires at least 1.5 years of trouble-free operation to issue such a certificate. But this was waived for Southwest, despite previous disasters involving the same aircraft.
Most recently, besides the Lion Air crash, Xiamen Airlines had a 2018 crash of a 737-800 in Manila. Another accident occurred on an Air Niugini 737-800 which plunged into the Pacific Ocean 159 yards of Chuuk Airport, an island in Micronesia.
A flight from Los Angeles to Honolulu takes approximately five hours over the ocean with no alternative landing fields in the event of a failure or an emergency.
It must be rated by the FAA for ETOPS 180, which means it must be able to fly for three hours on a single engine since the midpoint of the flight would be around 2.5 hours.
United Airlines started service on this aircraft from the U.S. West Coast to Honolulu some time ago but was forced to include occasional unscheduled landings in San Francisco to make sure there was enough fuel to take the aircraft all the way to Hawaii. San Francisco to Honolulu is the shortest direct distance between the U.S. Mainland and Honolulu.
In the event of a 2-engine failure over the Pacific, there would be nowhere to divert and survival is unlikely. Even a one-engine failure is problematic, as is a fire or other mechanical issue requiring an emergency landing. Any situation over the Pacific would escalate this.
In a typical year, there are 250 emergency landings.
Inside the cabin, “The seating and bathrooms in the 737 MAX are exceedingly cramped for long flights and will likely result in more DVT and other issues for obese or disabled passengers.” said Paul Hudson, FlyersRights.org president.
He continued, “What we think needs to happen is larger and fewer seats, increased width the of fuselage from 11 to at least 12 feet, and emergency landing areas installed or available within glide range.”
It is haunting, and old story, of profit more important than concerns of safety.