photo by Jeff Hitchcock
It is still too soon to announce the resurrection of Boeing’s 737 MAX jetliner, but encouraging sounds are emanating from the crypt.
This week’s flight tests of new onboard software and other safety improvements mark the first time Boeing’s former best-seller has flown anywhere other than to a long-term parking lot since it was grounded in March 2019, following two fatal crashes in a five-month span.
Clearing the MAX series – there are four models, although airlines were only using the MAX 8 and MAX 9 when the planes were grounded – would be a boon for Boeing. It would also be a rare bit of good news for the airlines, which have been devastated by the reduction of travel in the COVID-19 pandemic. Many are paying for recently delivered aircraft that are unable to carry ticketed passengers, even to the limited extent permitted by current reduced schedules. Those idle MAX jets are more efficient and less costly to operate than the older models they were meant to replace.
But Boeing has many miles to cover before the MAX can pull up to a passenger gate. Not only will American regulators and Boeing’s airline customers need to be reassured of the aircraft’s safety; so will a flying public that usually pays little attention to the details of the planes that carry them. And, importantly, so will regulators in many foreign markets, including Europe and China.
Those overseas regulators once would have been content to let the Federal Aviation Administration do the heavy lifting of ensuring the safety of an American-built passenger jet. No more. When those two MAX jets went down shortly after takeoff in Indonesia and Ethiopia, they took the hard-won credibility of America’s aviation regulators down with them. The European Aviation Safety Agency has stated outright that FAA clearance will not automatically confer clearance to fly in Europe.
The MAX should have been grounded after the crash of a Lion Air aircraft killed 189 people in October 2018. I issued a no-fly edict for the MAX jets among my own company’s staff once it emerged that a new flight control system had probably caused the crash after a faulty sensor triggered it. The system overwhelmed the pilots’ efforts to recover from repeated computer-induced nosedives. If regulators had issued a similar (and much more consequential) no-fly order pending further investigation and implementation of a fix, they might have averted the Ethiopian Airlines crash that killed 157 more people the following March.
Instead, the FAA was shockingly slow to respond even to the second disaster. It acted to ground the jets only after many foreign jurisdictions did so, or closed their airspace to MAX operations in transit – and only after President Donald Trump intervened. It may take the FAA as long to rebuild trust as it will take Boeing. And this is after Boeing was obliged to publicly disclose internal communications in which some of its own employees disparaged both their managers and the regulators. In these communications, staff members also said they felt obliged to yield to management’s demands for speed and simplified pilot training. Such simplification was one of the key selling points of the MAX, which was based on earlier designs dating back half a century.
Boeing hoped at first that a relatively simple software fix, together with the installation of a second aircraft-attitude sensor for redundancy, would be enough to get the MAX back in the air. Instead, a series of additional problems cascaded from the original design compromises that led to the dual disasters. Boeing also needed to address some separate issues with wiring and engine reliability. In the best case, the better part of two years will have passed before the MAX is cleared for regular passenger service – to the extent that is even happening as the pandemic continues.
The one bright spot is that the performance of Boeing and its regulators was so egregiously bad that it ought to give us some confidence that every update will have been triple-checked and triple-checked again, by everyone from the initial designers to the pilots who now, belatedly, will receive simulator training. According to The Wall Street Journal, Boeing has conducted more than 2,000 hours of flights to evaluate the new software leading up to this week’s FAA test flights. Underneath all the problems is an aircraft that is, at its core, one of the most reliable machines that has ever flown. I won’t hesitate to resume using it after it gets its overhaul.
As the saying goes, even the longest journey starts with a single step. Or in this case, with a single flight of a passenger jet devoid of passengers, flown by test pilots whose task is to ensure the safety of those who will follow. Someday – after the MAX grounding and the pandemic have both passed into history – that will include me.