FAA's instructions to Boeing either meaningless or dangerous

If a bureaucracy exists then that bureaucracy must be seen to be doing something. Whether what the bureaucracy does is useful isn’t the point, there are budgets and reputations to protect. Which brings us to this instruction from the FAA to Boeing:

The United States will mandate that Boeing Co implement design changes by April that have been in the works for months for the 737 MAX 8 fleet after a fatal crash in October but said the plane was airworthy and did not need to be grounded after a second crash on Sunday.

An Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 bound for Nairobi crashed minutes after take-off on Sunday, killing all 157 aboard and raising questions about the safety of the new variant of the industry workhorse, one of which also crashed in Indonesia in October, killing 189 people.

Boeing confirmed the Federal Aviation Administration's announcement late Monday that it will deploy a software upgrade across the 737 MAX 8 fleet "in the coming weeks" as pressure mounted. Two US senators called the fleet's immediate grounding and a rising number of airlines said they would voluntarily ground their fleets.

The company confirmed it had for several months "been developing a flight control software enhancement for the 737 MAX, designed to make an already safe aircraft even safer."

Clearly we’d prefer that planes don’t fall out of the sky and so such an upgrade is a useful idea. However, do note that flight control software is some of the most complex we create as a civilisation. Not so much that the task itself is particularly heinous, it’s that the error rate has to be extremely low. How Google load balances affects the speed at which pages appear on your screen. How flight control software works determines whether, well, whether planes fall out of the sky. We’ve rather different reliability desires between the two.

So, Boeing has been working on this upgrade for months and presumably they’d be rolling it out when it’s ready. That’s why they’ve been working on it for months. The FAA now says that it will be rolled out and it will be by a certain date.

There are two and only two possibilities here, given that Boeing has indeed been working on this for months. The FAA is just instructing Boeing to do what Boeing was going to do anyway. In which case it’s meaningless other than to protect the FAA’s reputation and budget. Or the FAA is insisting that this gets rolled out before Boeing would have done so, before Boeing thought it might be ready. In which case the bureaucracy is creating danger.

Bureaucracy, useless or dangerous? Both is difficult to allege and neither isn’t really possible.