Photo - David Ryder
November 18, 2020
The Federal Aviation Administration signed an order today that paves the way for the Boeing 737 Max plane to return to airlines' fleets once again. The decision ends the embattled plane's 20-month grounding.
The 737 Max was Boeing's best-selling aircraft until two similar crashes killed 346 people. Regulators around the world grounded the plane until a software flaw behind the fatal incidents could be fixed. The computer glitch would erroneously sense the plane was at risk of stalling and caused the aircraft's nose to push downward into an uncontrollable nosedive.
What followed was one of the rockiest times in Boeing's history. Congressional probes and media investigations into the Max's original approval process uncovered the fact that the manufacturer carelessly rushed approval and production of the aircraft, and that Boeing's own employees didn't think the aircraft was safe. The FAA's oversight was also found to be much too lax. Another major issue was the fact that the software system was not mentioned in pilots' manuals. The missteps cost Boeing a reported $20 billion dollars, according to CNN, and led to the ouster of then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg.
When will the Max begin carrying passengers again?
The FAA's order on Wednesday is only the first step in getting the plane back in the skies and carrying fliers. Regulators have rescinded the plane's grounding order, as well as published the recommend pilot training and directives for U.S. airlines to make the necessary design changes to their Max planes.
But before U.S. carriers can begin operating the aircraft once again, the FAA must approve each airline's revised pilot training program. Airlines that have parked their Max fleets—as the majority of carriers have—must take required maintenance steps to get the planes ready to fly again, after which the FAA will need to approve each individual plane. That process could take months for some airlines.
So far, American Airlines is the only U.S. carrier with the Max on its flight schedule. In anticipation of the plane's approval, the carrier in October tentatively scheduled a Max to fly on one route between New York LaGuardia and Miami International from December 29 to January 4. Additional Max routes will be phased into the schedule. The carrier says that customers will be alerted that their flight will be on a Max during the booking process.
American also reportedly was considering offering the public tours of the plane, as well as a Q&A with pilots, in order to reassure customers, but the airline hasn't yet confirmed those plans.
The FAA said that the plane's approval process “included an unprecedented level” of collaboration with international aviation regulators—who also are expected to deem the plane safe to fly again. The European Union's air regulator, EASA, recertified the plane on October 16 and stipulated an additional update to the aircraft's software be added.
Design changes and pilot training procedures
The FAA's pilot training requirements state that 737 pilots must receive training in a simulator or plane to respond to things like multiple flight deck alerts, unreliable airspeed readings (an issue linked to the original software's malfunction), and a runaway stabilizer trim—the technical term for the repeated nosedives that caused the crashes—among numerous other scenarios.
Design updates from the FAA mandate airlines install new flight control computer software, revise pilot manuals, change certain aspects of the Max's internal wirings, test a sensor that was also at fault in the crashes, and perform an operational readiness flight.
“I would put my family on it,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said on CNBC on Wednesday morning. During the approval process, Dickson completed the new pilot training and piloted a Max plane to observe the aircraft handling first hand.
“The work that we have done with the design changes and the training changes that will be made—that pilots will be undergoing—makes it impossible for the airplanes to have the same kind of accidents that unfortunately killed 346 people," he said.
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