The Boeing 737 MAX 8 finally returns.

The 737 variant everybody feared, finally makes its return to the skies. Will it win the trust of airlines and the people back? Or will it still leave a trail of uncertainty? Let’s go through what happened and why things turned out the way they did.

The Boeing 737 MAX 8 made its debut in the skies on January 29, 2016, and gained FAA certification on March 8, 2017. But unfortunately, when two new aircraft crashed in Indonesia and Ethiopia between October 2018 and March 2019, killing all 346 people on board, the aircraft was declared ‘grounded’ around the world from March 2019 to November 2020. In the upcoming months, Boeing was under great pressure to solve the problems and deliver what they had promised, while trying to keep pace with rival Airbus’ fuel-efficient A320neo aircraft. The global fleet of nearly 400 737 MAXs flew 500,000 flights from March 2017 to March 2019 and experienced two fatal accidents for an accident rate of four accidents per million flights when it was grounded. The previous generations of the Boeing 737 averaged 0.2 accidents per million flights. But now, all is in the past as the so-called ‘feared Boeing jet’ is finally making its comeback.

Lion Air’s 737 MAX on tarmac. Photo credits Airways Magazine
Ethiopian Airways 737 MAX. Photo credits JetPhotos

The cause

Going into depths, Boeing felt the need to redesign and introduce new systems. Little did they know how fatal these additions could turn out to be. Boeing had redesigned the prior 737 to use bigger, more economical engines. But the placement of those engines could cause a stall in certain takeoff situations. So Boeing developed software known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which counteracted the stall by automatically pushing the plane’s nose down – could be activated after data from only a single sensor. In an effort to save time and money, though, the company didn’t tell the FAA or customers about MCAS. That meant the pilots of the two fatal crashes were fighting a system they didn’t even know existed. After the Lion Air crash, Boeing revealed that the MAX had a new automated flight control, the MCAS, which could repeatedly push the airplane nose down. The Ethiopian accident occurred despite revisions to the flight manual required by Boeing and the FAA explaining how pilots should respond to unintended activation of the system. Boeing had begun but not completed safety improvements to the MCAS. The report said that Boeing made “faulty design and performance assumptions”, especially regarding the MCAS, which was linked to both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes.
Apart from software problems, pilots flying the 737 MAX, received no training on a new stall-prevention system and saw almost no mention of it in manuals. Most would get no visible cockpit warnings when a sensor used to trigger the system malfunctioned, and they had no access to simulators that could replicate the kinds of problems believed to have downed Lion Air Flight 610 in October, 2019.

“This airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys.”

Boeing Employees on the FAA

The return

Finally, its back. The FAA has published an extensive summary explaining its decision to clear the plane. The MCAS software has been modified and now uses both Angle of Attack (AOA) sensors, not just one. Pilots are provided with an “AOA disagree warning” which indicates that there might be an erroneous activation of MCAS. This warning was not standard equipment at the time of the two accidents – it had to be purchased by airlines as an option. And that MCAS will never override the pilot’s ability to control the airplane using the control column alone. Importantly, pilots will now be trained on the operation of the MCAS and management of its problems. Pilots claimed that initially they were not even told that MCAS existed. This training will have to be approved by the FAA. As the dust started to settle, a few airlines started to reintroduce the plane. GOL of Brazil, became the first airline to return the aircraft to commercial service with G34104.

The flight path of G34104. Photo credits FlightRadar24

Other airlines are getting ready to bring the plane back into their fleets, too. American Airlines plans to reintroduce the 737 MAX to its fleets by first flying without passengers and then slowly restoring commercial service starting at the end of the year. Southwest Airlines, which made the biggest bet on the 737 Max by buying about 34 aircraft, says it will restart commercial flights no sooner than the second quarter of 2021.

Major airlines with the 737 MAX 8. Photo credits Rafa Estrada

So, is all well? Probably. With flights gradually about to increase, it is still uncertain whether the 737 MAX 8 will win back the complete trust of the people around the world or whether it will still carry a sense of fear.


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