Boeing Reintroduces the 737 MAX After Two Fatal Crashes and 20 Months of Grounding

The new 737 MAX was Boeing's top-selling plane in 2018. Then one of them crashed in Indonesia on October 29, 2018—189 people died. Then another one crashed in Ethiopia on March 10, 2019—157 died.

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Debris lays piled up just outside the impact crater after being gathered by workers during the continuing recovery efforts at the crash site of Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 in Bishoftu, Ethiopia, on March 11, 2019. Jemal Countess/Getty Images

All 837 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft then in service were grounded by the FAA on March 18, 2019. It was the longest mass-grounding of an aircraft in U.S. aviation history—some 20 months.

The 737 MAX may soon be be recertified by the FAA for commercial service. The Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing claim they have thoroughly tested the plane's updated flight control system. Recertification could come as soon as Wednesday.

An aviation consultant said computer and training updates have been put in place to ensure the aircraft's safety.

"We learned that pilots don't necessarily respond to alarms as designers assumed," Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline industry consultant in Port Washington, New York, told Newsweek. "This required software changes and updated pilot training."

But investigations after the crashes showed that in an attempt to cut costs, Boeing took steps in the certification process to ensure that additional pilot training would not be required for the aircraft.

The old warning system, including stick-shaker and alarms, may have overwhelmed the flight crew because it couldn't be shut off. The new system will allow warnings to be clearly displayed to the pilot and co-pilot without distracting the flight crew or interfering with operation of the plane.

FAA investigators believe the Boeing 737 MAX's automated anti-stall device, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), erroneously pointed the nose of the planes down to avoid a midair stall and sent it into the fatal plunges.

The MAX's new fuel-efficient engines are heavier than previous types used on the aircraft. As a result, the engines were moved closer to the fuselage and that changed the plane's in-flight handling characteristics. At times, the nose of the plane pitched up during flight and, if uncorrected, could lead to a mid-air stall. Boeing added the MCAS to compensate.

At the time, Boeing was facing great pressure to build a fuel-efficient single-aisle plane to compete with the A320 built by its European rival, Airbus. Rather than building a new plane, which would have taken about 10 years including testing and regulatory approval, Boeing upgraded the 737 for the fourth time. The first model flew in 1967. About 10,500 737s of all generations have been built through September 2020.

Major airlines, including American, Southwest, Air Canada and China Southern, flew the MAX safely prior to the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. But the "MAX" name may disappear, and some airlines now refer to the plane as the 737-8. Mann said all grounded planes will be individually checked, and the entire worldwide fleet of about 460 MAX jets may not return to service until about mid-2021.

It's unknown if the public will consider the recertified MAX safe. However, the experience of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner may be illustrative. In January 2013, a lithium-ion battery on a Japan Airlines Dreamliner parked on the ground in Boston burst into flames.

The FAA grounded all Dreamliners. Boeing redesigned the batteries with ceramic insulation, added a steel box to contain any short circuit and included a tube to vent flammable material and smoke outside the plane. The batteries haven't been a problem since the plane returned to service in 2014.

"That incident was washed away by the 787's in-service experience," Mann said. "To rebuild public confidence, the MAX needs to do exactly what it was designed to do."

Earlier this year, Boeing submitted software updates for the MAX's automated flight control system to the FAA for review and testing.

A 52-page report issued earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General reviewed activities from the initial steps in certifying the MAX in January 2012 through the second crash. The report said Boeing placed "undue pressure" on those certifying the MAX for commercial service.

The Inspector General also reviewed the FAA's oversight of Boeing through a program called Organization Designation Authorization that grants manufacturers such as Boeing the authority to perform much of the work needed to certify its products.

Critics contend the FAA relied too heavily on Boeing engineers when certifying the MAX. But others believe advances in aviation technology quickly outpace the ability of government regulators to evaluate them, and therefore the FAA was justified in relying on the builder's engineers.

The Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act of 2020, co-sponsored by Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker, a Republican from Mississippi, and Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, would authorize the FAA to hire or fire workers involved in aircraft certification and give the federal regulatory agency the authority to appoint independent safety advisors.

The measure is pending in Congress.

Boeing characterized the MCAS as a modification to existing flight controls rather than a new system, and said that as a result it was "not an area of emphasis" on the MAX, the Inspector General said. This was done to minimize the need for additional pilot training as part of Boeing's goal to limit the cost of the new jet to customers, the report said.

However, the MCAS became more powerful as design of the 737 MAX progressed. FAA regulators told the Inspector General they had made key decisions about the flight control system without knowing that it has been extensively modified, the report said.

As a result, the FAA approved the 737 MAX for commercial service without fully understanding how the MCAS worked and problems it could pose to pilots who weren't fully trained in its function or how to override it during an in-flight emergency, the Inspector General concluded.

"We started with a project based on deception," James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and managing partner of Hall and Associates in Washington, told Newsweek.

"I think the FAA has finally put a good certification process in place," Hall said, "but I think it will take some flight history to verify that the MAX is going to be a safe aircraft."

Last month, Boeing reported third quarter revenue of $14.139 billion compared with $19.980 billion for the same period a year ago—a 29% decline. The company reported a net loss of $466 million in the third quarter of 2020 compared with a profit of $1.167 billion a year earlier.

Chicago-based Boeing, one of 30 companies used to calculate the Dow Jones Industrial Average, reported a loss of $3.501 billion in the first nine months of the year. The company's stock recently traded at $202.40 a share. The 52-week range is $89 - $374.83

"The global pandemic continued to add pressure to our business this quarter, and we're aligning to this new reality by closely managing our liquidity and transforming our enterprise," CEO Dave Calhoun said in a statement.

"Our diverse portfolio, including our government services, defense and space programs, continues to provide some stability for us as we adapt and rebuild for the other side of the pandemic."

Boeing cut production of passenger aircraft and furloughed workers as demand for new planes all but collapsed during the coronavirus pandemic. European rival Airbus, based in Toulouse, France, has also cut production and furloughed workers.

Boeing and Airbus are likely to remain a duopoly for the foreseeable future because neither has the capacity to produce all the planes needed when commercial airlines operate in a robust travel market.

Wichita, Kansas-based Spirit AeroSystems, builder of 737 MAX fuselages, also slashed production and laid off workers. GE and France's Safran announced plans to cut engine production for the MAX.

"This is probably the saddest chapter in aviation history," Hall said. "I hope we move forward and I hope we don't repeat this failure in the future—particularly at the regulatory level."