Sep 24, 2020
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Why Did Boeing Put So Much Technology in the 737 MAX? To Make Money

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President Trump implied that complicated technology may need brought about the Boeing 737 MAX disaster (a point since vigorously attacked) tweeting: Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed …. and the complexity creates danger. All of this for great cost yet very little gain. I don t know about you but I don t want Albert Einstein to be my pilot


I need great flying professionals which are allowed to easily and quickly take control of a plane!  @realDonaldTrump But why did Boeing and its airline customers want so much technology? To make money and profits. Experts will study whether excessive technology made the 737 MAX too complicated to fly and increased the probability of tragic air crashes


Other experts say technology makes airlines safer leading to ever-lower variety of crashes. But both points of view are distorted and misunderstand a fundamental aspect of technology. Economists don t view technology as a separate thing from corporate profit-making and cost-reducing strategies. Technology may improve airline safety but it’s adopted to make money


The relationship between human workers and technology is driven by costs and firm strategies says Rick McGahey economist at The New School. It might make economic sense for aircraft makers and airline service providers to continually seek profits by implementing technology through what economist Bill Lazonick calls adding value – creating a safer and higher product – but also by extracting value by saving on labor costs


In a talk with McGahey my colleague (and spouse) he notes we all want technology warning pilots of possible stalls and providing accurate weather reports—the list goes on and on. But because businesses have two imperatives—make better products and hold down costs– technology in the cockpit (and elsewhere) also has a profit-making and cost-saving aspect


Consider jet engines. Next time you fly see how many commercial planes have three or four engines rather than just two under the wings. Almost none. Engine technology is more efficient and more reliable and the iconic four-engine Boeing 747 is sharply limiting future production while Airbus is cancelling its four-engine A380 in favor of smaller two-engine planes


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Four engines use more fuel than two so the plane must fly virtually full to make money; airlines can manage load factors more profitably with a two-engine fleet. Newer engines are more fuel efficient and also more reliable. The drawback is that technology and design are complex. When Boeing decided to add new larger and more efficient engines to the 737 MAX 8 aircraft the engines changed the delicate aerodynamic balance of the plane making the nose pitch up more increasing flight risk


To compensate Boeing designed new software the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that could automatically push the nose back down. And MCAS is a prime suspect in the two fatal crashes. But the real suspect is how MCAS interacts with human pilots and whether the pilots were adequately trained to manage the hot software added onto the already very complex job of flying a commercial airliner


Almost all work processes are a combination of human effort and more complex systems can result in unexpected dangers where humans may react in unanticipated ways. After all despite misinformed commentary airplanes don t fly themselves. Human pilots fly them just as humans drive cars perform laparoscopic surgery and scan your groceries at the market


Critics say Boeing did not alert pilots about the MCAS and any dangers associated with it and that some airlines skimped on pilot rest training and upkeep in order to get additional profitable flight time. Boeing—like any company—never wants to assert their products maybe dangerous so there s a bias against such alerts


They can hurt sales and cause expensive liability litigation. But a spokesman for the American Airlines pilots union says there must have been more training and alerts from Boeing including sale of and time in simulators which the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) didn’t require. Economists often worry about regulatory capture where the supposedly impartial public regulator comes to argue for the very interests they are supposed to be regulating and there are questions whether the FAA has been subject to that here


Unions noted some of the pilots involved in the two 737 crashes had very little flying time. Although the captain of the Ethiopian Airlines flight had a great number of hours the 1st officer reportedly only had 200 hours of flight time (U. S. regulators require 1500) leading one expert to assert you basically put a student pilot in there


Pilot unions naturally want higher requirements more training and higher pay for pilots. After all who has more incentive for safe aircraft than a pilot? But airlines like any profit-making firms aggressively bargain down wages and working conditions reducing the variety of on-board pilots and cutting their rest periods and coaching costs


And prefer many industries demography means airlines are facing a growing pilot shortage. It’s leading some to lower requirements for pilot training and experience. (See this website listing opportunities which are available for Low Hour Pilots for commercial airline jobs. ) When companies face high labor (or other) costs they frequently substitute technology


That’s a major explanation why technology is increasing in commercial aircraft not safety or complexity for its own sake. Bottom line: technology often substitutes for what companies perceive as too-costly and scarce human labor. Upward pressure on pilot wages using so-called pilot shortages is leading companies to chop pilot costs wherever possible including designs for future jetliners that will only need one pilot


(We economists don t see persistent labor shortages just companies which are offering too low wages) Of course hiring pilots with less experience and providing them less training is in a different way to chop costs. It’s too soon to inform if the 737 MAX crashes could be blamed in part on poor training and loss of pilot experience


But don t treat the technology or software problem in isolation. Like any other work process under capitalism every Econ 101 student knows what was so eloquently explained in the 1980s by economist Harry Braverman–technology always should be understood in terms of costs control of work and how humans and technology interact at the job


Safety and reliability come from training adequate pay and working conditions independent government regulation and a voice for worker and customer safety—like ALPA the Air Line Pilots Association International. This gives necessary countervailing power against companies relentless drive to lower costs potentially even at the cost of worker and customer safety–and their lives

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