RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Here in Washington today the Federal Aviation Administration is going to meet with airlines and pilots to talk about the troubled Boeing 737 Max airplanes. The planes are still grounded worldwide after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed almost 350 people. As NPR's Russell Lewis reports, these talks come as Boeing says it's close to finishing a software update that may allow the jets to start flying again.
RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: When the 737 Max entered service in 2017, it had a new safety feature. The plane would sense if it was close to entering an aerodynamic stall and force the jet's nose down. But it would do it without any commands from the pilots. That software, called MCAS, played a part in the two accidents. Dennis Tajer flies the 737 for American Airlines and is a spokesman of the Allied Pilots Association.
DENNIS TAJER: We believed it was manageable, but you had to know what was going on. But we're learning more, since the Ethiopian crash, about just how aggressive this system was.
LEWIS: Pilots of both doomed airplanes struggled to pull up before crashing. In a simulated flight of a different version of the 737, a crew demonstrates how difficult it is to control an aircraft when it wants to fly pitched down.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We're at 300 knots now, fighting. And I am struggling to keep this aircraft flying.
LEWIS: The pilots in this simulation wrestled the plane for several minutes before they eventually gained control. Boeing says it has reprogrammed software on the 737 Max to prevent it from using erroneous data to trigger the MCAS anti-stall system. Here's CEO Dennis Muilenberg speaking yesterday.
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DENNIS MUILENBURG: We're taking a comprehensive, disciplined approach and taking the time to make sure that we get it right.
LEWIS: Muilenberg says the company's test pilots have flown 96 flights with this updated software, and more are scheduled in the next few weeks.
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MUILENBURG: Yet we know we can always be better. And these recent accidents have intensified our commitment to continuous improvement as we design, build and support the safest airplanes in the sky.
LEWIS: That may be a long process. Neera Jain teaches mechanical engineering at Purdue University. She's not involved with the software redesign. But says Boeing's challenge is it needs to re-engineer its systems so pilots can have confidence and trust in the plane's automation.
NEERA JAIN: We have to do a better and better job of then figuring out how to design those systems in a new way so that they don't just technically do the correct things but that they are also, for lack of a better word, then being transparent to the human. And that's a piece that I think - this is certainly a strong signal that there's a lot more that we have to do.
LEWIS: The FAA's meeting today is with executives and pilots of the three U.S. airlines that fly the 737 Max - Southwest, United and American. The agency says it wants to hear their concerns before it decides when to return the Max to service.
Russell Lewis, NPR News.
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