FAA regulators have expressed their desire to achieve a 'near simultaneous' recertification of the beleaguered aircraft, but that may be easier said than done.
A Quick Recap
The Boeing 737-MAX has been in the news since the October 29, 2018 Crash of Lion Air Flight 610, shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, killing all 189 passengers and crew. Control issues on a previous flight had been reported, although those pilots were able to recover. A faulty angle-of-attack (AoA) sensor and Boeing’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) were later suspected as contributing to the loss of control. The design of the 737-MAX-8/9 included substantial airframe and powerplant modifications compared to previous models, changing the aircraft's center-of-gravity. As a result of an extended fuselage, and placement of larger, more powerful engines, the aircraft could under certain circumstances enter a dangerous angle, potentially resulting in an aerodynamic stall. To address this problem, the MCAS system was designed to work “in the background” when the aircraft was approaching a dangerous AoA and provide automatic horizontal stabilizer inputs which would push the aircraft’s nose down to regain airspeed.
On November 7, 2018 the Federal Aviation Aviaton (FAA) issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive (AD) which warned that a faulty AoA sensor could result in repeated nose-down trim inputs from the MCAS system, which might result in loss of control. In short, the AD reiterated and expanded existing procedures for addressing “runaway stabilizer” conditions. In the weeks and months following the Lion Air Accident there was an outcry by both airlines and pilots who were completely unaware of the existence of the MCAS system. Apparently, Boeing thought that the existing “runaway trim” procedures were enough to counteract the conditions experienced by the Lion Air crew. Then, there was the debate over what was standard and what was an option on 737-MAX models such as one or two AoA sensors and a cockpit “disagree” light when sensors data conflicted.
In the ensuing months, the FAA and Boeing appeared to have gotten a handle on the crisis, with Boeing standardizing the “optional” equipment on all MAX models. Of course, that was until March 10, 2019 when Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa, killing another 157 passengers and crew, under eerily similar circumstances.
The Grounding Grinds On
The stakes couldn’t be higher for Boeing and the FAA to get the re-certification of the 737-MAX right. Boeing is America’s largest exporter and with nearly 5,000 MAX orders on the books, the aircraft is a best seller. A day after the Ethiopian 302 accident, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) grounded the nearly 100 737-MAX models in the fleets of Chinese airlines. Considering Boeing is a U.S. manufacturer, typically foreign regulators would wait for FAA guidance, so the Chinese announcement caught many by surprise. Since U.S. airlines had successfully operated the 737-MAX for thousands of flights, it was only natural that the FAA wanted investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to evaluate the evidence, before making the fleet grounding decision. However, after 346 fatalities on a new type aircraft in six months, there was a public outcry to ground the fleet, so the preemptive Chinese grounding order made Boeing and the FAA look bad, as if they were putting U.S. financial interests over the lives of foreign passengers.
Ultimately, as regulatory agencies across the world began the ground the MAX fleet and after the FAA evaluated the evidence from Ethiopian 302, they followed suit. The bottom line is, nobody can move forward until the FAA re-certifies the aircraft. There is probably only one chance to get this right and the reputations of Boeing and the FAA are on the line. Once the FAA gives the greenlight, the question is whether other agencies responsible for the re-certification of the MAX fleet will do the same. Apart from the FAA and Transport Canada in North America, the other agencies responsible for large MAX fleets include the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and China's CAAC. For the most part executives from major airline companies such as IAG (British Airways, Iberia) and Southwest have expressed confidence in the return of the MAX, others are losing patience. As reported by CNBC last July, in an earnings call Ryanair CEO Michael O'Leary expressed his frustration with the grounding, as airline growth plans had
relied on the delivery of 58 737-MAX aircraft by the summer of 2020. According to Boeing, the company has 135 of the type on order. When asked how many aircraft he expected to be delivered in the time frame, O’Leary replied, “It may well move to 20, it could move to 10, and it could well move to zero if Boeing don’t get their sh--- together pretty quickly with the regulator.”
Reading the Tea Leaves
Now, the million-dollar question is when the 737-MAX will return to service. Press releases from the airlines show different levels of optimism. American, United and WestJet have removed the MAX from their schedules until early November 2019, while Southwest and Air Canada have removed the aircraft from their schedules until January 2020. In the meantime, Boeing has identified and is correcting software flaws and implementing a “fail-safe” process where the MCAS system will work in conjunction with both, rather than a single flight control computer. Boeing still appears to be aiming for an October re-certification, but that may be overly optimistic. However, they are taking very seriously the need to have the aircraft return to flight simultaneously in FAA, EAS, and CAAC regulated regions. Bloomberg reported on August 6th that Boeing has dispatched teams to China to hold workshops with pilots and engineers from China Southern, Air China, China Eastern, Xiamen and Hainan Airlines, as part of the process of returning China’s 96 grounded aircraft to flight. On August 13th, the Trump Administration announced that a new round of tariffs on popular Chinese made goods scheduled to begin September 1st, has now been delayed until December 15th. This temporary reprieve is certainly good news for Boeing and U.S. consumers as well.
We have complete confidence that the FAA and Boeing won’t return the 737-MAX to service until it is ready and not a day sooner. Financial implications apart, and they are vast, we owe that to the memory of the 346 passengers and crew who perished on Lion Air 610 and Ethiopian 302. Hopefully China and the CAAC will set aside geopolitics once it has been demonstrably proven that the 737-MAX is the safe, efficient and airworthy aircraft it was designed to be.
Source(s): FAA, CNBC, Bloomberg
UPDATED 8/30/19: United Airlines has removed the Boeing 737-MAX from their schedule until 12/19/19.
Updated 10/2/2019: American Airlines has removed the Boeing 737-MAX from their schedule until 12/03/19.