Dispute arises among U.S. pilots on Boeing 737 MAX system linked to Lion Air crash

Airline pilot unions this week protested loudly that Boeing hadn’t provided them information during training about a new automatic flight-control system on the MAX that’s possibly linked to the deadly Lion Air crash in Indonesia.But the United Airlines pilot leadership, in a sharp break with peers at the two other U.S. airlines flying the 737 MAX, pushed back against the criticism of Boeing.

The new system is designed to activate without pilot action in extreme flying conditions.

In an interview Thursday, Capt. Todd Insler, chairman of the United branch of ALPA, the Air Line Pilots Association union, broke ranks with his counterparts at American Airlines and Southwest Airlines who earlier this week publicly complained that this wasn’t disclosed to pilots during training or included in the 737 MAX pilot manuals.

Insler said many systems on an airplane work in the background without the pilot’s knowledge. He compared it to watching television: “I don’t need to know how it works.”

On Airbus jets, which unlike Boeing’s are designed to a philosophy that gives more autonomy to the automated flight-control systems and less to the pilots, there are dozens of systems that constantly work in the background without the pilot’s direct knowledge, he said.

Insler said it’s premature to say anything about the cause of the Lion Air crash. “I don’t jump to conclusions,” he said.

He added that while the 737 pilot manual doesn’t specifically describe the new system, it does include a standard procedure to shut down the flight-control behavior it induces — whether it’s the new system causing it or something else — and the Lion Air pilots should have been aware of it.

“The story here is not why we didn’t know about (the new system), it’s why the pilots didn’t fly the plane,” said Insler.

That view drew a sharp rejoinder Friday from Capt. Dennis Tajer, chairman of the communications committee of the Allied Pilots Association (APA), representing American Airlines pilots.


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