On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA, approved Boeing’s 737 Max to return to the skies for commercial service after almost two years of being grounded. The grounding happened in early 2018 following two crashes of the new 737 Max type aircraft, one with Lion Air and the other with Ethiopian which killed a total of 346 people. You can easily tell the different between an older 737 and the new 737 Max by looking at the engines. The newer 737 Max have chevrons at the back of the engine’s outer housing which help to reduce engine noise where as the older 737’s engines outer housing are straight or even.
Following the worldwide grounding of the 737 Max, investigators began zeroing in on a new piece of software called the MCAS, or maneuvering characteristics augmented system, which was installed to make the airplane handle like previous version of the popular 737. It was installed because the new 737 Max had engines mounted slightly forward to accommodate a larger more powerful engine. This changed how the airplane handled, but to save airlines on having to retrain pilots in costly simulators, the MCAS system was installed. However, pilots and airlines were not informed that the MCAS system even existed or that it was installed. Complicating this was the fact that the 737 Max had only one ‘angle of attack’ sensor with no backup sensors. When this sensor received bad information, the MCAS system would kick in, and ultimately caused the crash of two new 737 Max aircraft. Older 737’s have two angle of attack sensors and do not have the MCAS system.
“The design and certification of this aircraft included an unprecedented level of collaborative and independent reviews by aviation authorities around the world,” the FAA said in a statement. “Those regulators have indicated that Boeing’s design changes, together with the changes to crew procedures and training enhancements, will give them the confidence to validate the aircraft as safe to fly in their respective countries and regions.”
Aviation expert Khalid Khalil said, “the Boeing 737 Max has been the most scrutinized, reviewed and tested airplane to date because of the crashes. As a result of this heightened and detailed testing process, by not just the FAA, but also the Canadian authorities, European authorities, Japanese and several other counties, we can be confident that the 737 Max now reentering service will be the safest airliner in the skies.” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in comments this past summer that he will not give a date for the airplane to return to service and that would only after all safety experts agree that all safety and airworthiness issues have been fixed will the 737 Max be given the approval.
Airlines will now have to have their pilots undergo additional costly simulator training which will include MCAS failure scenarios before pilots can take to the skies again with the 737 Max. American Airlines is set to be the first U.S. based airline to return their 737 Max airplanes to service and is expected to do so at the end of December. Both United Airlines and Southwest Airlines have stated they are expecting the Max to get back into the air again with their respective airlines sometime in early 2021.
In total, the 737 Max received more than 150 design changes, many of which had nothing to do with the MCAS system but came about as engineers and regulators inspected and tested the entire aircraft.
News of the 737 Max’s return to service is good news for Boeing, but not great news. The airplane manufacture had built 450 737 Max airplanes following the grounding as it was anticipating the grounding to be short. Boeing receives the majority of payment for an airplane on delivery, and the 737 has been the company’s cash cow, so not delivering any for two years has caused serious financial stress on the company. Add to that the effects of the pandemic, which saw many airlines cancel orders because they couldn’t pay for the airplanes or just don’t need them while air travel demand remains at 35% of typical levels, and Boeing has been forced to lay off thousands of workers and shifted production of other models like the 787 Dreamliner to the company’s Charleston, SC production facility in other to save money. The workforce at there SC facility is not unionized, thus saving the company money on labor.
Boeing currently has a backlog of more than 3,000 737 Max airplanes on order, so there is no jeopardy immediately of the 737 Max program failing, however the effects of the pandemic are still ongoing and each month more airlines have been cancelling orders. But Boeing is not alone, Airbus has also seen orders for their popular A320 cancelled as well due to the pandemic.