After a pair of deadly crashes and nearly two years of scrutiny, the U.S. 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.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson signed an order Wednesday rescinding the grounding. U.S. airlines will fly the Max once Boeing updates critical software and computers and pilots receive training in flight simulators.
The FAA says the order was made in cooperation with air safety regulators worldwide.
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-aerodynamic-stall software, known as the the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which Boeing had devised to counter the plane’s tendency to tilt nose-up under certain conditions because of the size and placement of the engines. MCAS 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.
New software now requires inputs from two sensors, and Boeing says the software does not override pilot controls, as it did in the past.
The 737 Max is an update of previous 737 models with more fuel-efficient engines. One of the chief selling points for the plane was that pilots trained to fly the previous family of 737s, known as Next Generation, wouldn’t have to complete costly simulator training before transitioning to the Max.
In addition to modifying MCAS, the FAA is also requiring numerous other changes to the plane after a torturous review process that at times prompted tension between the plane maker and its overseer, as well as foreign regulators.
Regulators required Boeing to complete a complex update to the Max’s flight-control computers so that they are more redundant. Changes were also mandated for the plane’s autopilot, and wiring has to be rerouted to limit the risks it could cause a failure similar to what was seen in the crashes.
After rags and tools were found in many of the grounded aircraft, the FAA is also ordering inspections to look for such debris left behind during manufacturing. Partially as a result of lapses such as this, the FAA is using its own inspectors to sign off on the safety of newly built planes. It had been routine for Boeing employees to conduct such approvals.
On a conference call with reporters, Dickson said the Max is now the most scrutinized transport aircraft in history, with over 40 FAA employees working tens of thousands of hours on the plane.
“The design changes we have overseen make it impossible for these accident scenarios to reoccur,” he said.
He said that if the FAA knew after Lion Air what it learned during this review of the plane, it should have grounded the plane after the first crash.
“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.
The aircraft maker’s redemption comes in the middle of a pandemic that has scared away passengers and decimated the aviation industry, limiting its 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 grounding 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 has a sticker price of $99 million to $135 million, although airlines routinely pay less.
Shares of Boeing stock fell 3.2% to $203.30 in trading Wednesday. That’s about half of the all-time high of $440.62 reached on March 1, 2019, just days before the Ethiopian crash, but well above a $95 trough in March, when the pandemic caused massive disruptions to travel and the global economy.
“It’s Boeing’s most important program and the United States’ most important manufactured product, but you couldn’t ask for a worse market right now,” Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, said in an interview before the FAA’s move. “It’s not a question of opening the floodgates and watching the cash pour in the way it would’ve been a year ago.”
Will passengers board?
John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT, said 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.
“It’s probably the safest airplane to be on,” he said.
Relatives of people who died in the crashes aren’t convinced. They accused Boeing of hiding critical design features from the FAA.
“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.”
American is the only U.S. airline to put the Max in its schedule so far, starting with one round trip daily between New York and Miami beginning Dec. 29. United Airlines expects to start using the plane early next year, while Southwest said its Max jets won’t fly before the second quarter of 2021.
Some consumer groups urged airlines to fully disclose when Max flights are planned. That’s usually on an airline’s website, although passengers have to know where to look. Advocates are concerned about airlines using the Max in a last-minute switch.
Nearly 400 Max jets were in service worldwide, 72 of them in the U.S., when they were grounded, and Boeing has built and stored about 450 more since then. All have to undergo airworthiness checks before they can fly.
Pilots must also learn new procedures and train in a simulator, which was not required when the aircraft was introduced. Hansman said training for qualified 737 pilots shouldn’t take long because Boeing has fixed software problems.
Boeing’s reputation has taken a beating since the crashes. 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.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.
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 to rush the plane to the market.
Meanwhile, a criminal probe by the U.S. Justice Department continues. Frayed relations with the FAA threaten to result in fines or other penalties, and the Securities and Exchange Commission also has an open investigation.
Among the criticisms was the FAA’s use of Boeing employees to inspect and evaluate the Max, with some workers feeling pressured by the company to act in its favor.
Dickson said the so-called designee program has changed, with the FAA handling all evaluations of the Max itself. FAA inspectors will check every new Max before it’s cleared for flight, he said.
The designee program will continue on future aircraft, he said, but the agency is “implementing various measures to make sure there’s a free flow of communication and data between manufacturers and the FAA.”
Dickson — a former Air Force and Delta Air Lines pilot who flew 737s — flew the Max himself before it was cleared.
China, the first country to ground the jet, hasn’t given a clear timetable for its return.
Europe’s aviation regulator, the European Aviation Safety Agency, said it will take public comment on plans to clear the Max for flight by carriers there and expects to finalize a plan by early next year. Some EU states will have to lift their own grounding notices, as well. Regulators in Canada and China are still doing their own reviews.