cntraveler Jan 16 2020
The Boeing 737 Max should have been the company’s most important plane. It is the fastest-selling aircraft the plane manufacturer has ever made. But its worldwide grounding has dragged on since March 2019—after software installed on the aircraft pushed two Max planes into unrecoverable nosedives, killing 346 people in two fatal crashes—and has hit yet more setbacks in recent days.
For more than a year, Boeing has been working on a software fix for the Max, which it hopes will convince regulators around the world that the aircraft is safe to fly again. But aside from that malfunctioning software, called MCAS, regulators have found new safety issues with the Max, potentially creating another complication to its return.
“The Max is one of the few airliners that many air travelers have become familiar with and not in a good way,” says aviation expert and author of The Crash Detectives Christine Negroni. “Even if it goes back into service, it faces difficulty with passengers and flight crews expressing nervousness about the integrity of the plane.”
The plane’s estimated return date has been pushed back again and again. Southwest just announced the Max won’t be back on its schedule until June, following American Airlines, which did the same this week, and United Airlines. Many fliers are wondering:
Will the Boeing 737 Max ever be deemed safe enough to fly again?
During a safety audit in December, inspectors found a wiring issue on the Max. Boeing is investigating whether two bundles of essential wiring are situated too close together, which could lead to a short circuit and possibly cause a crash, the New York Times reports.
“We are working closely with the FAA and other regulators on a robust and thorough certification process to ensure a safe and compliant design,” Boeing said in an emailed statement. “We identified this wire bundles issue as part of that rigorous process, and we are working with the FAA to perform the appropriate analysis. It would be premature to speculate as to whether this analysis will lead to any design changes.”
If the wiring does need to be moved, Boeing reportedly told the Times it would be an easy fix that would take only one to two hours per plane. But the inspection process could find more flaws.
“We only know that this was one problem found,” Negroni says. “We don’t know if there were others. But it does indicate that regulators are not going to get caught allowing the Max to fly again and having some problem crop up that will put the FAA in an unfavorable light.”
Another recent hurdle for Boeing to overcome: incriminating internal communications regarding the Max that the company turned over to Congress. The messages span back to a time when the Max was still in development and reference “covering up” information from the FAA, along with other harrowing comments like “Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”
Even Boeing, after months of releasing overly optimistic timelines for Max’s return, seems to now acknowledge the difficult road ahead for the plane.
“The news that Boeing’s new CEO David Calhoun was promised $7 million if he could get the Max re-certified shows just how big a challenge Boeing thinks it will be to get the airplane’s myriad issues squared away with the FAA,” Negroni says. But does all this mean that the plane could be permanently grounded? The answer is complicated.
Has a plane ever been deemed too dangerous to fly again?
Regulators banning a plane completely—even if it has fatal design flaws—would be unprecedented.
“If you look back in history, there have been programs that have had real difficulties,” says airline consultant Bob Mann. “The very first jet, the Comet, had severe problems with metal fatigue,” which led to multiple fatal crashes, he says. “But it continued for another 20 years in service with revisions.”
The Comet’s design flaws were caused by new technology that caused “a surprise hazard that investigators had a difficult time tracking down,” just like the Max, Negroni says. It had even more fatal crashes than the Max, but it kept flying after fixes were made. “Between the time of its maiden flight in May of 1952 and its grounding in April 1954, three of the airplanes crashed killing all on board. The planes kept coming apart in flight,” Negroni says, noting that the Comet was grounded and then revised versions of the jet were later approved to fly.
Fatal design flaws on the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 also caused four high-profile crashes and subsequent groundings. “Travelers stopped wanting to fly on the DC-10, and most airlines got rid of them,” Negroni says. “The airplane, like the Max, just got a reputation as an unsafe airplane. And following a crash in Turkey, a book came out showing all the ways that McDonnell Douglas cut corners when designing the airplane, that harken to the revelations coming out now with Boeing.”
But even with its safety issues and bad reputation, the DC-10 went back into service—with “high-profile customers in high-profile markets,” according to Mann—and some are even still flying today.
In the case of the Max, most experts say that despite the months-long roadblocks, it too will eventually return. “Every new issue is a challenge for Boeing, for sure,” says Peter Lemme, a former Boeing engineer. “But I would temper the thinking that this is a never-ending road. The regulators are turning over every stone, but most of these [concerns] have been addressed.”
Where does the return of the Boeing 737 Max stand?
This week, both the FAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency will meet with Boeing in Seattle and head to a test facility in Iowa to try the plane maker’s software fix for the Max, Reuters says. The European regulator has already said it wants to certify the Max itself, in a break with the FAA, whose recommendations it followed before the Max crashes.
If the agencies approve the software fix, flights testing the new safety features could reportedly begin as early as this month. On the flights, FAA inspectors will trigger the MCAS system to see how the safety improvements hold up.
“There will be a careful assessment of MCAS malfunction,” Lemme says. “In virtually all cases, it will not result in any [stabilizer] trim runaway,” he says, referencing the glitch that caused the planes to nosedive. “I would expect they will force at least some runaways to be complete.” The hardest part, according to Lemme, will be making sure the software doesn’t dip the nose too far and that the pilot has enough authority to pull the plane back up out of a nosedive. “Again, I do not expect any bad outcome,” he says.
Once the software fix is approved, every Max plane will need to be inspected. “The FAA will need to sign off on each individual plane,” Mann says, noting that in the past that job would have fallen to Boeing’s own inspectors. After the Max crisis, however, the duty falls to federal officials with the FAA moving forward.
The approval process could include everything from a walk-around inspection of the plane with special attention to angle of attack vane, which also played a role in the crashes, and it could involve a physical flight test of each aircraft, according to Mann. “If the FAA does test flights in January,” he says, “airlines could get the planes back as soon as March or April.”
But when the Max is deemed safe, it doesn’t mean that airlines can immediately start flying them again. That’s because Boeing, reversing its stance from when Max planes first hit the market, is requiring all pilots to train on a simulator before flying a Max plane.
“Producing [a simulator] takes between eight months and a year,” Negroni says. “Right now there are only a handful of them, so requiring pilots to have simulator training is going to throw a big wrench into the return to service schedule.”
The simulators will cost airlines millions of dollars, and deciding when to buy them and have pilots complete the training will be tricky. “It’s not like airlines can do the training now while they’re waiting for their Maxes to get re-certified because the training won’t get approved until the final design is certified,” Negroni explains. “That’s a real chicken or egg scenario.”