For many Americans, 2020 has felt like the year that will never end. But for Boeing, it has brought at least one bright spot: the end of the multiyear 737 MAX saga.
Last week, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration lifted the order that has grounded the MAX for 20 months. The 737 MAX can take to the air again once Boeing and airlines install software upgrades and pilots receive additional training in flight simulators. Among the many new safeguards Boeing added are the ability for pilots to manually override the horizontal stabilizer (which moves the plane’s nose up and down). Losing control of the nose was a key failure point behind the crashes that together killed 346 people before regulators grounded the MAX. When flights resume, Boeing will also run a 24-hour “war room” to monitor all MAX flights for potential safety issues. And the FAA plans to inspect the 450 or so MAX aircraft that Boeing built during the flight ban before Boeing delivers them to the airlines.
FAA chief Steve Dickson told Reuters, “We’ve done everything humanly possible to make sure” that crashes like the ones in late 2018 and early 2019 do not happen again. Dickson said he felt “100% confident” of the MAX’s safety after the upgrades.
Other countries are expected to follow the FAA’s lead, though many are continuing independent reviews. Canadian regulators say a decision should arrive “very soon,” but emphasized that they will likely require extra flight-deck procedures and pilot training beyond the FAA’s. Regulators in Europe have said they expect to act before the end of the year, though a public comment period means that the MAX won’t return to Europe’s skies before 2021 at the earliest. Europe, too, may require more changes from Boeing or extra pilot training. But these changes may not be extensive; Politico reported that Patrick Ky, the head of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, said he believed the MAX will be safe to fly after Boeing and airlines put in place the fixes that the FAA approved. Brazil and China are also conducting reviews of their own.
In light of the FAA’s decision, I also lifted my company’s travel ban – which has been in place longer than the FAA’s grounding – though for the moment, the gesture is purely symbolic. No one at my firm is traveling for business right now, on any sort of airliner, due to the ongoing pandemic.
For the same reason, the 737 MAX will only return to service gradually. The pandemic weakened demand industry-wide, which means the MAX’s return to regular service will be even slower than otherwise. Airlines will return the planes to their fleets as they complete training and upgrade requirements, but they are still running reduced schedules. Heading into the holiday season, passenger traffic through U.S. airports is less than a third of its normal volume. American Airlines has scheduled its first commercial MAX flight for the end of December, with United Airlines in the first quarter of 2021. Impending vaccination programs should speed up the MAX jets’ return to service in the second half of 2021.
When an effective COVID-19 vaccine is widely available and my firm’s staff returns to the skies, they will be free to travel on any commercial jetliner again. I would never allow any of my staff, or encourage my family, to fly on an aircraft that I had reason to think put them at risk. I am comfortable that the changes that Boeing has made to the flight control system that caused two earlier disasters will make the MAX as safe as earlier 737 models, which have an excellent safety record. The additional pilot training should also mitigate the risk, now much more remote, that malfunctions like those responsible for the 2018 and 2019 air disasters would result in similar tragic consequences.
This is not to say Boeing’s troubles are over. The Wall Street Journal reported that airlines have canceled roughly 10% of outstanding orders for the MAX this year, largely due to pandemic-induced financial problems. Boeing has said it believes hundreds of the roughly 4,100 orders it has outstanding may also be in jeopardy. But even as Boeing faces major challenges, the news from the FAA shows a path out of the quagmire.
As Jeff Guzzetti, an aviation safety consultant, told Politico: “It’s still going to take a while — months and years — for the tremors from this watershed accident to calm down. But they will calm down. And the airplane will eventually just become a workhorse, ordinary commercial airliner.”
Boeing’s wounds were at least partially self-inflicted. But almost two years later, the company is in a position to begin to heal. Once travelers can take to the skies again, they will be able to do so with new confidence.