back to article Boeing fined $17m after fitting uncertified sensors to 737 Max and NG airliners for 4 years

Boeing has paid the US Federal Aviation Administration $17m after fitting hundreds of 737 NG and Max airliners with heads-up guidance system sensors (HUGSS) that hadn’t been properly certified as safe for use. “Keeping the flying public safe is our primary responsibility. That is not negotiable, and the FAA will hold Boeing …

  1. Richard Pennington 1

    Heads up guidance system sensors ...

    As opposed to the nose-down-into-the-ground guidance sensors previously fitted ...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Heads up guidance system sensors ...

      Correction. I think it was too much heads up, into a stall, then nose down.

  2. Rich 2 Silver badge

    That’s justice!

    “Boeing has paid the US Federal Aviation Administration $17m…”

    Rather than paying the US FAA, maybe they should donate the fine to the families of the people they have killed on their aeroplanes.

    It won’t bring anyone back of course, but still.

    1. Snake Silver badge

      Re: That’s justice!

      Rather than fining, frankly IMHO their management should be investigated for fraud, both to the buyers *and* the stockholders for years of apparently inflating company worth through improper and illegal actions, PLUS involuntary manslaughter charges for the deaths incurred by their decisions.

      Italy has just arrested 3 individuals and charged them with involuntary manslaughter in regards to the recent cable car disaster, which is the right choice - but notice how in America, as long as you are shielded behind Big Corp. you just get a slap on the wrist with a (modest) monetary fine, but no prison sentence, no matter how many people your corrupt decisions kill (see: Warren Anderson).

      America. We have the best government that Big Business could possibly pay for.

      1. Paul Hovnanian Silver badge

        Re: That’s justice!

        On one hand, the FAA has a philosophy that encourages the reporting of problems by forgoing penalties in all but the most egregious of cases. Flight crew makes a mistake. Better to find a solution, pass it on to all the operators and maybe get some training than have it hidden to protect careers.

        On the other hand, this is management within the manufacturer, not the flight crew. And for many positions, the FAA has little or no prior say on their being promoted to their positions (things like DERs being the exception). So demanding any level of training and/or qualification after the fact when the initial job qualiification was that they could fog a mirror might be a hard sell.

      2. Aaiieeee

        Re: That’s justice!

        I wasn't aware of the cable car disaster and ended up on the Wikipedia page for the 1998 Italian cable car disaster. The pilot lost this job and served 4 months for killing 20 people despite knowingly flying too low and destroyed evidence… it’s awful.

        1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

          Re: That’s justice!

          FWIW, he meant This one from just a few days ago.

    2. vtcodger Silver badge

      Re: That’s justice!

      My GUESS would be that fitting uncertified sensors was a screwup, not deliberate malfeasance. Incredibly complex product. Tens of thousands of workers. Unnumerable individual parts. Misunderstandings are going to happen.

      Still, though. It's Boeing's responsibility to make sure mistakes are detected and rectified before their aircraft get into the air. $17m seems to me to be entirely too low a fine unless there were very strong mitigating circumstances.

      1. Mishak Silver badge

        Re: That’s justice!

        Unlikely, as they have teams of people responsible for tracking certification; you would hope that the process was automated so that parts could not be released for use without it being in place.

        1. SW10

          Re: That’s justice!

          you would hope that the process was automated

          Oh yes, I bet they had an ENORMOUS spreadsheet automating all that

        2. MachDiamond Silver badge

          Re: That’s justice!

          "Unlikely, as they have teams of people responsible for tracking certification; you would hope that the process was automated so that parts could not be released for use without it being in place."

          That's until the "certified" box is ticked accidentally and never revisited going forward. Boeing orders the same part in future and the compliance report shows it as being certified. The fix would be a requirement that a manual check is done periodically to catch such errors.

    3. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

      Re: That’s justice!

      This is s different thing from the plane crashes thing, this hasn't killed anybody. I think. Not yet.

      If I follow, they fitted parts which weren't approved for that use yet. But they are approved now, so I suppose they can leave them in?

  3. Chris G

    Just when you think you are big enough and important enough to ignore the law, you discover your arrogance kills people and costs you money as well.

    A pity nobody has been thrown into a dungeon over Boeing's disregard for legal requirements and passenger lives.

    1. Korev Silver badge

      Boeing turned over USD15.2B in 2020; the USD17M fine is about a 1000th of that. Unless the people responsible for making these decisions spend some quality time at the American equivalent of Her Majesty's Pleasure then nothing will change.

      1. John Doe 12

        Now Philip has gone to meet his maker I guess Her Majesty isn't getting much of that oft mentioned "pleasure" any more...

        1. Andy Non

          That's just... where's the mind bleach?

          1. John Doe 12


            This should help build up the mental picture :-D

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Boeing, as the sole surviving US manufacturer of commercial airliners, knows it can do almost anything and it will be protected from serious consequences. The whole board should have been removed and banned from holding similar positions 'pour encourager les autres'.

      1. Intractable Potsherd Silver badge

        "Boeing, as the sole surviving US manufacturer of commercial airliners..."

        And there's the problem. Ideally, it needs breaking up (the same for Airbus). They are both "too big to fail" these days, and can get away with murder (almost literally).

    3. EricB123 Bronze badge

      Same Old Shi*

      Just like the financial crisis, where junk debt was rated as investment grade. People get their homes foreclosed, executives at the worst get golden parachutes. Big banks, big pharma, Boeing. This lack of accountability is disgusting and is erroding confidence in buying American products.

      1. Cliffwilliams44 Bronze badge

        Re: Same Old Shi*

        And yet, the American politicians that created this disaster get a pass both legally and politically. When you strong arm banks into granting loans to risky people you have to come up with a way to finance those loans, Mortgages used to be a solid investment, an investment that many retirement funds were invested in. These new risky loans could not be financed through regular mortgage instruments so "creative thinking" had to be done to generate the money to finance these loans.

        Then when Democrats took power in 2006 and stated to American business "we are coming for you!" (Quote from Nancy Peliosi!) American business pulled back and people got laid off. People who were over leveraged on their houses with 1st and 2nd mortgages with high loan to value ratings. When these mortgages started failing, the investments used to secure these mortgages also failed.

        But the people ultimately responsible for this fiasco, 1st Jimmy Carter, then Bill Clinton, and then Democrats in Congress who refused to acknowledge this problem when it was brought up 3 times by the G.W. Bush administration were of course never held responsible.

      2. MachDiamond Silver badge

        Re: Same Old Shi*

        "and is erroding confidence in buying American products."

        Not just US products but anything manufactured by a big company. The reality though is that people will bitch but will return to buy another John Deere tractor again next year. The only rebuke that affects a large company is a drop in profits.

  4. RF Burns

    Yes the Boeing trim system malfunctioned. How were most pilots able to recognize a runaway trim condition and land safely while 2 others crashed their planes? Pilots are trained to deal with trim malfunctions by disabling or counteracting them. Both options were available to those pilots. In the case of the Ethiopian 737 the throttles were left at takeoff power which severely hampered their ability to recover. It's too easy to blame Boeing or the pilots but facts are stubborn things.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The problem is the manual trim wheel on a 737 is a real pig to operate and when your aircraft is pointing severely downhill you haven't got long.

      The fix was to either engage the autopilot or keep the flaps extended to at least flaps 1 as that disabled MCAS. Of course if you've never been briefed by the manufacturer such a system was fitted...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Autopilot is inhibited by a stall detection. The correct thing is to trim the airplane to zero control wheel load, which also brings the trim wheel load to zero, before pulling the plug on the trim enable. It also helps not to exceed the maximum maneuvering speed by leaving the thrust set to take-off while trying to re-engage the autopilot.

        Of note is day one of "stall warning" training is to immediately disable autopilot and autothrottle; the Ethiopian pilots did the opposite. In the update to the FCOM it clearly says to never re-engage the trim enable after it has been disabled - the Ethiopians re-enabled the trim enable so they could try to re-engage the autopilot.

        What this exposed is the pilots would have done the same wrong thing in the event of a shorted wire in the trim system, no software problem required at all. It's just that up until now there has apparently never been a trim problem with any Boeing 737; at least it's not been included in the analysis of the crashes.

        More than that, the final report on the Lion Air crash and the preliminary report from Ethiopian say absolutely nothing about training of the pilots on trim runaway, which is especially problematic as the Lion Air crash involved a plane that had been flown to a safe landing on a scheduled flight with exactly the same defect the day before, suggesting that pilot handling was the critical difference. Ethiopian had that information and seems to have done nothing with it.

        Politically, Ethiopian, a property of the Ethiopian government, was in a tough position. It took delivery of the crash aircraft just after the Lion Air crash. It took delivery of 737 Max simulators. It offers flight school training and is the prize jewel of Ethiopia. The President of Ethiopia is referred to in their press as "Nobel Peace Prize winning President" but has a civil war simmering. It's not like the government could tell everyone they had pilots who were unprepared to fly the newest, best airplane on the continent and jeopardize their standing as a supplier of training by holding the planes on the ground if the US FAA wasn't making that demand.

        The Ethiopians were briefed on the trim system, including the flaps, before they took delivery and months before their crash. There was an emergency AD, there was an update to the FCOM, and there was a preliminary report from Lion Air.

        1. SW10

          Instead of referring to the autopilot and using words like “apparently”, “‘suggests”, and “seems”; why don’t you start with pages 8, 9, and 10 of the FAA crash report, and take it from there?

          MCAS fed by a single-point-of-failure sensor is the issue; moreover it worked behind the pilots’ backs in a manner that wasn’t properly documented in order to falsely convince regulators that a 2020s jet was essentially the same as its 50 year-old grandfather

          1. RF Burns

            Pilots are trained to deal with runaway trim no matter what causes it. Manual controls on the yoke and console could have counteracted the computer.

            Let's not be intimidated by computers. We still have options when they misbehave. It we are going to be afraid of something I could suggest the jackscrew on Alaska Air flight 261. When that mechanical device failed the pilots were out of options. They even tried flying upside down.

            1. sanmigueelbeer

              Pilots are trained to deal with runaway trim no matter what causes it. Manual controls on the yoke and console could have counteracted the computer.

              This is a good theory if MCAS was not involved.

              Next, Boeing deliberately hid MCAS in training manuals and flight sims.

              It is well-and-truly nice for us "arm chairs" when we all knew what the cause was. When it was up to those four pilots, they did what they did. Nowhere in the formally released investigation did FAA or BAE criticize the pilots for not doing the right thing.

              At the end of the day, a faulty AoA sensor gave MCAS the wrong information and the pilots tried their darn best to do the right thing un-successfully, trim wheel or no trim wheel.

        2. anothercynic Silver badge

          What you also fail to mention in your smarty-pants reply is that Addis Ababa is also 2300m higher in altitude than Jakarta, and that MCAS had the problem of kicking in at a certain altitude, right in the middle the critical phase of ascent. You don't want to fight a piece of software and trim tabs at takeoff thrust in the middle of trying to get the plane off the ground and to cruise altitude. And that's precisely what happened with their crash plane. MCAS kicked in just after takeoff with the plane not that high off the ground.

          Ethiopian is arguably one of the safest airlines on the African continent, and they are excellent at what they do. Casting aspersions over the airline because of politics does not do your argument favours. Yes, Ethiopia may be a mess politically (the civil war brewing, the authoritarian stance of the government), but the airline has been consistently excellent in its maintenance and training (and customer care).

          1. This post has been deleted by its author

          2. sanmigueelbeer

            `tis not the trim wheel, stupid.

            Ethiopian is arguably one of the safest airlines on the African continent, and they are excellent at what they do

            Agree. Ethiopian Air pilots are no joke.

            Now, to whoever was pushing the "conspiracy" about the trim wheel, have a read of this: Crash: Ethiopian B38M near Bishoftu on Mar 10th 2019, impacted terrain after departure

            Take note of the following:

            * the manufacturer computed the trim forces that would have been necessary to move the trim wheel according to the FDR data, which according to the EAAIB ranged between 42 and 53lbs -- That is per turn. It will require several turns of the trim wheel to simply get a single degree of change in nose up/down

            * It was noted that it was impossible to turn the wheel with one hand confirming the first officer’s statement “it was not working” meaning "hard to move". Some participants expressed surprise at the difficulty. It was possible to turn the wheel with two hands although not convenient at all. The level of force for this condition was found to be between 30 and 40 lbs. It was agreed that difficulty would increase further outside the normal operating envelope (as in the accident case)

            It takes, a minimum of, 45 to 48 cycles or full rotation of the trim wheel to correct a single mis-trim (measured in "units"). Are you a strong person? Can you continuously turn the trim wheel 45 times with a resistance of 40 lbs? If you can do it again, because according to the FAA report, by the time MCAS started pushing the nose down, the mis-trim have already grown to 2.1 units (and increasing).

            And remember, in forward motion, aerodynamic forces will "push" the trim wheel corrections back -- Backward pressure. And, if this does not deter, do not forget that MCAS is still there pushing the nose down FURTHER. Every time the ET-302 crew would turn the trim wheel, the mistrim would only increase because of MCAS.

            The FAA and BAE report concludes that the cause of both crashes: MCAS activation based on a single faulty AoA sensor input without cross check or plausibility check of the incoming AoA value

            Neither of the FAA and BAE report criticize the pilots of both fatal flight. No one even had the recommendation of "oh, had they used the trim wheel they would have survived". NONE.

            Instead of focusing on "trim wheel" or what the pilots "could have done", especially after-the-fact, consider this:

            1. It has been universally accepted that Boeing tried to hide the feature and functionality of the MCAS from everyone, including the FAA.

            2. Boeing, until now, still makes the 737MAX with two AoA installed. TWO!

            3. Boeing, made (past tense) the "AoA Disgree" and the "AoA Indicators" as optional extras.

            4. Boeing's insatiable greed resulted in 346 lives were lost. And no Boeing staff/executive went to jail. No one.

            To whoever is pushing this theory of the "trim wheel", I say this: Please, sit down & STFU. Thank you.

      2. RF Burns

        You are right. Going downhill with takeoff thrust doesn't leave much time to solve problems.

    2. Snake Silver badge

      RE: runaway trim

      As I mentioned in another reply, manually correcting trim on a 737 MAX turned out to be functionally impossible in real-life tests. It turns out that Boeing [had] to reduce the diameter of the manual trim wheels on the MAX in order to fit them into the more crowded center console; the smaller wheels, upon testing, proved to not grant sufficient mechanical leverage to actually work the trim manually when required, even with both pilots working together against both wheels.

      1. RF Burns

        Re: RE: runaway trim

        You are right that physically turning the 737 trim wheel against aerodynamic forces is near impossible. However, the trim button on the yoke would have overridden the MCAS. No need for strength, just light finger pressure on the rocker switch.

        BTW ... The aerodynamic forces are reduced if the throttles aren't left at takeoff power.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: RE: runaway trim

          There is a major issue with that theory. In absence of there being any training into an MCAS fault, the pilots would have automatically assumed it was a runaway trim issue.

          The runaway trim procedure required the pilots to disable the electrical trim system and rely on the manual trim wheels, regardless of the potential root cause.

        2. anothercynic Silver badge

          Re: RE: runaway trim

          Except you need takeoff power while you are... in a takeoff. Which is what the Ethiopian MAX was. What would you have wanted them to do? Reduce thrust to idle whilst 1000 ft off the ground to wrestle with MCAS or the trim wheel?

          Get real. They would've pancaked either way, and MCAS's faulty implementation was instrumental in that.

    3. elaar

      The official reports seem to strongly contest your opinion.

    4. Justthefacts Silver badge

      This makes no sense at all

      Your argument that “the pilot coulda” applies equally to every safety-critical system on the plane.

      Literally every other safety-critical system is a) Dual redundant b) Documented c) Has safety procedure defined in case of failure.

      Why on Earth is MCAS different? Your argument directly implies to remove all safety redundancy from all systems, because the pilot has to handle the failure case anyway. And since simpler = more reliable, that would actually be better.....

      Also, Boeing clearly knew it was wrong at the first design time. When they were forced to put in that redundancy, it has become obvious that there is something really bad screwy with the software architecture, that putting in the cross-strapping causes all hell to break loose. They ended up with software watchdog failures and deadlocks in the first few fixes before getting it right. Just to add one redundant sensor, when there are hundreds already? This is seriously messed up legacy code. Nobody wanted to touch it with a bargepole, and that’s why they didn’t do it right first time.

    5. anothercynic Silver badge

      Because they were in a take-off!

  5. chivo243 Silver badge

    Photo with Article

    I can't be sure, but those look like Aer Lingus planes, they don't fly Boeing...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Photo with Article

      Those are 737 MAX before painting, they're usually a pretty odd mixture of colours before going into the shop!

      1. chivo243 Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: Photo with Article

        I read that the dark green in the photos is representative of unpainted planes, in my continued reading after posting.

  6. Marcelo Rodrigues

    Chump change

    Really? Lousy 17 million? That's what Boeing allot s to the coffee machine!

    This should HURT the company. The whole concept of fining is "I will bleed so much money from You, all your bean counters will be left crying, in a fetal position".

    If the fines don't do that, then it doesn't work. It will be inserted on a column, on a spreadsheet, as "cost of doing business".

    The fine MUST be catastrophic.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Chump change

      >The fine MUST be catastrophic.

      Which will simply be added to the bill for the next fighter jet.

      At this point Boeing and the DoD are essentially indistinguishable, just like BAe/Thales and the MoD

  7. steelpillow Silver badge

    Charmed life

    Fucked up wiring, fucked up MCAS, unreliable AoA sensors, unlicensed parts, two fatal crashes and multiple groundings. Far less than that killed off the Douglas DC-10 and Lockheed Tri-Star, yet the airlines are still gagging for the Max. Am I insane or is somebody not telling us something?

    1. jtaylor

      Re: Charmed life

      "the airlines are still gagging for the Max. Am I insane or is somebody not telling us something?"

      The 737-MAX is an economical airliner in a size that fits well at many airlines. Those airlines purchase planes for many reasons, including to replace old ones as they retire and to upgrade their fleets. Airbus's competitor, the A320-NEO, is selling well and the order books are full for a while. Neither manufacturer can satisfy the market demand alone, so airlines who cancel their 737-MAX orders will wait years* for delivery of an A320-NEO.

      The above information is easily obtained and not secret.

      *Some buyers will auction their delivery slots.So yeah, you could buy planes off another airline. That doesn't fix the market.

      1. Cliffwilliams44 Bronze badge

        Re: Charmed life

        The draw of the 737 MAX was fuel efficiency. Specifically gained by hanging incompatible engines on an air-frame never designed to use them. Then designing MCAS to compensate for the increased angle of attack on take off. As fuel prices continue to rise because of the false climate crisis we will see more of this. Resulting in more deaths. But that's OK, at least we are reducing CO2, the thing that prevents this planet from turning into a giant snow ball!

        Remember, space is cold (Mercury has ice at its poles) and the Earth sits at the outer edge of the Goldilocks zone. But who cares about real science when your trying to advance your political goals.

    2. mevets

      Re: Charmed life

      They seem to be telling us loud and clear " safety regulations do nothing; even when we are caught circumventing them to save pocket change, we are immune to any serious liability ".

      Do airlines face any liability for choosing bad suppliers?

      Do manufacturers face any consequence for slandering airlines? Remember, Boeing spuriously blamed Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air for having poor quality pilots. Following the same playbook, they also launched a very ugly and unsubstantiated attack on the pilots of Malaysia Airlines flight 370.

      They are telling us everything -- learn to accept your lot in life; it isn't improving.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Charmed life

        Airbus and bombardier have tariffs in the USA and airlines who choose not to buy Boeing can face regulatory pressure for their lack of patriotism.

        Other countries that rely on US defense cooperation have to buy US airliners if they also want ot be allowed to receive US military aircraft. They alternative, if you are small South Asian country, is to buy Airbus and rely on the French fleet to protect you from China

        1. anothercynic Silver badge

          Re: Charmed life

          No. Neither Airbus nor Bombardier face tariffs in the US.

          For starters, Bombardier is no longer in the commercial airliner business. They sold off the C-Series programme to Airbus, their regional jet airliner (the CRJ) business to Mitsubishi and the turboprop airliner business to Longview Aviation (who already owned the rights to the earlier de Havilland models including the Beaver, Otter et al), who renamed themselves to De Havilland Canada. Bombardier are a purely business jet player now (the Global and the Challenger, Bombardier having wound down the LearJet division).

          Second, Bombardier won the ITC dispute against Boeing, which negated the tariffs on their jets. Third, Airbus built a final assembly line in Mobile (Alabama) for the C-Series (now the A220) next to the FAL for their A320 family, so all A220 and A320 family jets sold on the North American continent are built in Mobile, again negating tariffs since they are assembled inside the US.

          Boeing plays dirty (to be fair, so has Airbus in the past). Canada showed Boeing the door when they started playing funny games over the C-Series. Other countries still buy the Max because, as others pointed out, the Airbus single-aisle neo family is way oversubscribed and to actually get one is tough even after the COVID downturn. Airlines like Ryanair, Alaska and Southwest who have made their efficiencies over the decades by running a single-model fleet won't suddenly change their entire lineup just because the jet had faults. Southwest made it crystal clear to Boeing that they were not pleased about the mess, were not pleased about the delays caused by the mess, and extracted quite the concessions from the airframer. Ryanair quietly renamed the Max in their documentation to avoid probing questions. British Airways (thanks to Willy Walsh) gave Boeing a boost, only for Walsh to move on to IATA, and Cruz to IAG.

          1. mevets

            Re: Charmed life

            re: Canada showed Boeing the door when they started playing funny games over the C-Series.

            Don't take Canada's actions at face value; a ways back a former Prime Minister got caught passing paper bags full of money to Karl Schrieber as part of an arrangement about buying a fleet of Airbus's. [ keywords : mulroney Schrieber pasta ].

            So Boeing may simply have greased the wrong person.

  8. anothercynic Silver badge


    You'd think they would've learned. They haven't.

  9. Winkypop Silver badge

    $17 million

    That’s about the same as the annual budget for Boeing Execs leadership meetings*


  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Stick with clown cars!

    Boeing should be relegated to designing clown cars until they get their engineering act together.

    I can't imagine why their planes kept crashing.

    1. Cliffwilliams44 Bronze badge

      Re: Stick with clown cars!

      Boeing's record a really quite good. This recent fiasco is a result of the push for fuel efficiency at a competitive cost! All driven by the false claims of a climate crisis. Boeing made bad decisions because of bad motivation based on lies. No excuse for Boeing management and engineers but the bigger picture is at fault as well.

      1. mevets

        Re: Stick with clown cars!

        It is not a result of any such thing! It is the result of cutting corners and low standards. The fact that the technical goal was efficiency and competitiveness has nothing to do with the shoddy design and and poor integration, and even less to do with the loathsome attack on the victims to deflect responsibility.

  11. Aussie Doc

    Optional sensible title here

    “Keeping the flying public safe is our primary responsibility..."

    Yeah, about that.

    Your previous actions don't seem to support that contention but that's just me, I guess.

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