Go the Extra Mile for 737 Safety


An exceptional situation demands an exceptional response from the Federal Aviation Administration. The National Transportation Safety Board has confirmed what was long suspected about the Boeing 737, the world’s most commonly used airliner. A valve in the rudder control system can malfunction and cause the rudder to steer the plane in the direction opposite of the pilot’s command. This very rare occurrence involves the vertical tail section, which guides the plane right or left. There are about 3,000 737s in use, and that’s why the FAA has to go the extra mile to ensure passenger safety.

The board believes that the rudder malfunction can cause planes to roll over and spiral out of control. This, the NTSB says, has happened at least three times. Crashes in 1991 and 1994 claimed all 157 people aboard the two planes. During the third incident, in 1996, pilots trained to respond to the problem successfully regained control.

The FAA has already implemented changes, including the training for 737 pilots and some mandatory mechanical fixes. But the NTSB wants more, which, given the 737’s ubiquity, seems appropriate.


The safety board lacks true enforcement power, and the FAA does not have to abide by its recommendations. But the safety board’s requests are not excessive. Among them are a redundant or fall-back rudder control system and more extensive rudder control training for pilots.

Boeing and the FAA say that they have eliminated the rudder control flaw. But caution demands further efforts. The NTSB is right in pressing for them.