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Boeing 737 MAX 8 crashes raise concerns on aircraft automation

Montreal - The industry is still looking for an answer as to how two almost brand-new aircraft of the same type could crash in five months, both just after takeoff.

In the wake of new technologies, passenger planes are becoming more and more complex. Industry giants like Boeing and Airbus are working on automation systems controlled and supervised by AI (Artificial Intelligence) which will eliminate the pilots from the cockpit in the near future.

During the A4E (Airlines for Europe) summit in Brussel this year, Lufthansa Group CEO Carsten Spohr said that travelers would not dare to board an aircraft even with only one pilot. Spoht pointed out that the public sentiment is still in favor of human pilots.

"Lufthansa CEO thinks passengers are not ready to travel on planes with only one pilot"

Although equipped with the latest technologies, automation still plays a limited role in today's passenger planes, but pilots are still the ultimate decision-makers.

Boeing made some radical modifications to its classic 737 to upgrade the aircraft to the more modern and efficient MAX version. For instance, the airframe of the 737 MAX is considerably closer to the ground compared to its predecessor.

Because of this, Boeing raised the front landing gear by a few inches to fit the new larger engines under the wings. But this modification apparently changed the aircraft's center of gravity and decreased lift force on the plane in certain maneuvers, especially at low speeds.

Boeing’s solution to this handicap was a piece of software known as MCAS, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System. The system intervenes automatically when one of the two sensors on both sides of the aircraft warns that the plane may be approaching a stall.

"How the MCAS system of Boeing 737 MAX works"

After Lion Air Flight 610 crashed in October last year, Pilot Unions in the United States complained that pilots were not trained enough on the new system and it wasn’t properly documented in the training manuals.

The benefits of automation cannot be denied, but it requires a high level of training and situational awareness. Pilots must be able to take back control of the plane in case of any unusual behavior or maneuver from the automated flight control systems.

Unfortunately, the Flight 610 investigation revealed that pilots were not able to regain control of the aircraft back. They struggled with the flight control systems manually to save the aircraft from the sharp dive it entered because of the MCAS system, but failed.

Preliminary analysis of the Ethiopian Flight 302 crash suggests similarities with Flight 610. As a result, the certification process of the aircraft is under scrutiny by US officials; Boeing's reputation has suffered considerable damage; And airlines and the public are deeply concerned about the safety of the Boeing 737 MAXs.

"FAA disregarded safety flaws during the certification of Boeing 737 MAX, sources claim"

In addition, these crashes have raised doubts about the aircraft automation. The human-machine interaction in the cockpit seems to be the next focus of flight safety in the coming days.