FAA clears Boeing 737 Max to fly again

Updated: 18 November, 2020 22:08 IST | AP | Mumbai

Regulators around the world grounded the Max in March 2019, after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet

A worker is pictured next to a Boeing 737 MAX 9 airplane on the tarmac at the Boeing Renton Factory in Renton. Pic/AFP
A worker is pictured next to a Boeing 737 MAX 9 airplane on the tarmac at the Boeing Renton Factory in Renton. Pic/AFP

After nearly two years and a pair of deadly crashes, US Federal Aviation Administration has cleared Boeing''s 737 Max for flight.

The nation's air safety agency announced the move early Wednesday, saying it was done after a "comprehensive and methodical" 20-month review process.

Regulators around the world grounded the Max in March 2019, after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet. That happened less than five months after another Max flown by Indonesia''s Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea. A total of 346 passengers and crew members on both planes were killed.

Also Read: DGCA will take "some time" before deciding on Boeing 737 MAX planes

Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson signed an order Wednesday rescinding the grounding. U.S. airlines will be able to fly the Max once Boeing updates critical software and computers on each plane and pilots receive training in flight simulators.

The FAA says the order was made in cooperation with air safety regulators worldwide.

"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," the FAA said in a statement.

The move follows exhaustive congressional hearings on the crashes that led to criticism of the FAA for lax oversight and Boeing for rushing to implement a new software system that put profits over safety and ultimately led to the firing of its CEO.

Investigators focused on anti-stall software that Boeing had devised to counter the plane''s tendency to tilt nose-up because of the size and placement of the engines. That software pushed the nose down repeatedly on both planes that crashed, overcoming the pilots'' struggles to regain control. In each case, a single faulty sensor triggered the nose-down pitch.

The FAA required Boeing to change the software so it doesn''t repeatedly point the nose of the plane down to counteract possible aerodynamic stalling. Boeing says the software also does not override the pilot''s controls like it did in the past. Boeing also must install new display systems for pilots and change the way wires are routed to a tail stabilizer bar.

"These events and the lessons we have learned as a result have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity," Boeing CEO David Calhoun said in a statement.

Boeing''s redemption comes in the middle of a pandemic that has scared away passengers and decimated the aviation industry, limiting the company''s ability to make a comeback. Air travel in the U.S. alone is down about 65% from a year ago.

Boeing sales of new planes have plunged because of the Max crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Orders for more than 1,000 Max jets have been canceled or removed from Boeing''s backlog this year. Each plane carries a sticker price between $99 million and $135 million, although airlines routinely pay far less than list price.

John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT, said that people typically avoid airplanes for a few months after there are problems. But the Max case is unusual, and were it not for the novel coronavirus, Hansman said he would feel safe flying on a Max.

"This whole thing has had more scrutiny than any airplane in the world," he said. "It''s probably the safest airplane to be on."

American is the only U.S. airline to put the Max back in its schedule so far, starting with one round trip daily between New York and Miami beginning December 29.

Nearly 400 Max jets were in service worldwide when they were grounded, and Boeing has built and stored about 450 more since then. All have to undergo maintenance and get some modifications before they can fly.

Pilots must also undergo simulator training, which was not required when the aircraft was introduced. Hansman said pilot training for qualified 737 pilots shouldn''t take long because Boeing has fixed software problems.

Relatives of people who died in the crashes remain unconvinced of the Max''s safety. They accused Boeing of hiding critical design features from the FAA and say the company tried to fix the tendency for the plane''s nose to tip up with software that was implicated in both crashes.

"The flying public should avoid the Max," said Michael Stumo, whose 24-year-old daughter died in the second crash. "Change your flight. This is still a more dangerous aircraft than other modern planes."

Boeing''s reputation has taken a beating since the crashes. Its then-CEO, Dennis Muilenburg, initially suggested that the foreign pilots were to blame. However, congressional investigators discovered an FAA analysis — conducted after the first Max crash — that predicted there would be 15 more crashes during the plane''s life span if the flight-control software were not fixed.

After an 18-month investigation, the House Transportation Committee heaped blame on Boeing, which was under pressure to develop the Max to compete with a plane from European rival Airbus, and the FAA, which certified the Max and was the last agency in the world to ground it after the crashes. The investigators said Boeing suffered from a "culture of concealment," and pressured engineers in a rush to get the plane on the market.

Boeing was repeatedly wrong about how quickly it could fix the plane. When those predictions continued to be wrong, and Boeing was perceived as putting undue pressure on the FAA, Muilenburg was fired in December 2019.

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First Published: 18 November, 2020 21:34 IST

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