US sen. Edward Markey(D-Massachusetts) has introduced legislation that would prohibit aircraft manufacturers from charging airlines extra for safety-critical systems.
Known as the “Safety is Not For Sale Act of 2019,” the proposed bill includes two key features that some industry watchers say could have prevented two recent crashes of Boeing 737-800 MAX 8 aircraft that caused international regulators to ground the global fleet of the type earlier in March.
“For Boeing, safety features that could have saved 346 lives on two of their 737 MAX 8s were yet another profit center, deemed optional like premium seats, extra bathrooms or fancy lighting,” Markey said in a statement announcing the legislation. “Aviation safety cannot be a luxury that is bought and sold for an extra fee, but a standard part of our fleets, ingrained in every bolt, sensor and line of code on an aircraft.”
Two optional safety systems have caught the ire of Congress—the angle-of-attack (AOA) indicator, which provides a visual indication of the amount of lift an aircraft is generating at a given airspeed; and the AOA disagree light, which alerts pilots if the plane’s sensors are providing different readings.
Those features could “help pilots and mechanics detect a sensor malfunction,” potentially avoiding the scenario suspected to be at the heart of both recent 737 MAX crashes, in which faulty readings from one of the aircraft’s AOA sensors caused the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) to repeatedly push the plane’s nose downward, causing pilots to lose control of the aircraft.
The entire MAX fleet was grounded worldwide in March after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines’ flight ET302 shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa. All 157 people were onboard. It followed the crash of Lion Air JT610, also a MAX, on Oct. 29, 2018, killing 189. Boeing is working on a fix that will need to be tested and certified before the MAX can re-enter service.
On March 27, Markey and 16 of his Senate colleagues wrote to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg calling on the Chicago-based manufacturer to “offer or provide all safety-enhancing equipment without an additional charge to air carriers.”
Boeing EVP-government operations Tim Keating responded April 2, telling the lawmakers that “all aircraft delivered by Boeing and certified by the FAA are equipped with all critical safety features necessary for the plane to operate … While we have offered options for customers, I want to reiterate that critical safety features will never be, ‘a la carte.’”
Keating explained that Boeing aircraft are sold with an “interior allowance,” which is a budgeted amount of money that allows operators to “purchase options to complete and customize the aircraft’s interior.” He said the company expects that all emergency equipment can be acquired by airlines using that allowance without spending additional money.
The proposed legislation was applauded by Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) president Joe DePete, who said in a statement that the bill “would make additional safety information available to airline pilots in the cockpit and provide airlines with more safety data about the equipment they operate, while also making onboard safety enhancements easier to acquire.”
“State-of-the-art safety technology should be standard equipment on all aircraft,” National Consumers League executive director Sally Greenberg said. “If this bill were law, it could have saved hundreds of lives and prevented the recent tragic loss of life.”