The Federal Aviation Administration(FAA) lifted its ban on the Boeing 737 Max on Wednesday, 20 months after the aircraft was grounded following two crashes within five months that killed 346 people. The action means the FAA is satisfied that software and other fixes, and new pilot training, make the plane safe to fly again.
The FAA said it brought unparalleled scrutiny to the Max this time around. Boeing and federal regulators were faulted in several investigations of the crashes for missing deadly flaws in the aircraft. Investigators pointed to lax government oversight and problems during the certification process.
The Max was grounded worldwide on March 13, 2019, after the FAA said satellite data showed “the possibility of a shared cause” for two crashes, one Oct. 29, 2018 in Indonesia and the other March 10, 2019 in Ethiopia. Investigators later determined that problems with an automated flight control feature led to both tragedies.
In an order Wednesday, signed by FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, the FAA said it had determined that the two crashes “involved a common cause…and was likely to exist or develop in other” Max planes, but that the steps it is requiring “address the unsafe condition.”
Boeing said the company had undertaken a “thorough assessment to ensure that our systems meet all regulatory standards, reflect industry best practices, and also incorporate learnings from independent reviews.”
The ban is being lifted in a dramatically changed environment, with the airline industry decimated by the pandemic. Passenger numbers remain far below normal levels, tens of thousand of airline workers have been laid off and carriers are losing billions.
Even with the ungrounding, it will still be several weeks before the first Max jets return to the skies. Hundreds of the aircraft were grounded worldwide, including more than 70 in the United States, and many more were built by Boeing and have yet to be delivered to customers. The planes, which have been parked for extended periods, each need to be inspected and updated, and thousands of pilots need to be retrained.
Though some airlines are eager to fly the Max again — the more fuel-efficient planes will save them money — it is unclear whether the public will be anxious to return, once travel rebounds from the pandemic, perhaps after widespread immunization with promising vaccines next year.
The U.S. government had been viewed by many as the global standard-bearer for aviation safety. But the FAA’s certification that the Max was safe in 2017, and its initial reluctance to ground the aircraft after the Ethiopia crash, severely tarnished the agency’s credibility. Aviation safety authorities in China, the European Union and many other countries were quicker to act.
Revelations that some Boeing employees raised concerns internally about some of the problems cited in the crashes, sent mocking and manipulative messages about regulators, and led a campaign to prevent the FAA from requiring costly simulator training for Max pilots, underscored flaws in regulatory process, which allows the agency to delegate much of the detailed work of certification to the manufacturer itself.
Families of those killed in the two crashes remain unconvinced of the plane’s safety, and they appealed to the FAA to release more technical details about Boeing’s fixes so independent experts can assess whether they are sufficient to ensure the Max is safe.
“Prove that safety is your priority,” said Naoise Ryan, who lives in Ireland, and described the effect the death of husband Mick Ryan in the Ethiopian Airlines crash had on her young daughter, Saorlaith.
The little girl begged her father not to leave on the work trip for the UN’s World Food Program. But her parents knew he wasn’t taking on a dangerous assignment so, Ryan said, “There was nothing to be concerned about.”
Ryan said her daughter suffers night terrors and after her fourth birthday wish that her father return went unfulfilled, she gave up on wishing.
The couple’s son, Macdara, was just a few months old at the time of the crash and will never know his father.
“Our family is broken,” Ryan said.
Michael Stumo, whose daughter Samya also died in the Ethiopian crash, said short of much more comprehensive technical disclosures by the FAA and agency requirements for additional safety measures, the Max cannot be trusted.
“This plane should be avoided by the flying public,” he said.
Crash investigators said an automated feature on the Max, known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, repeatedly forced the noses of the planes down, overwhelming pilots and leading to the crashes.
The FAA order released Wednesday sets requirements Boeing and airlines must follow before the planes can fly again. The order reflects months of back-and-forth between the manufacturer and the agency and the required fixes they have already agreed to.
The airworthiness directive formally requires the overhaul of MCAS already developed by Boeing, as well as other improvements to the flight control system. The updated software makes MCAS less powerful, so a pilot can more easily regain control of the plane, Boeing said. The plane also now compares input from two external sensors rather than one. Investigators determined that faulty data being fed to a sole sensor caused MCAS to repeatedly engage before the crashes.
The FAA’s recertification of the aircraft comes as attention has largely shifted away the Max’s troubles and to the industry’s struggles to survive its worst economic crisis since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
“The pandemic has completely obscured so much of the news and drama around the Max that was being discussed last year,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research Group, an aviation industry research company based in San Francisco.
The timing of the ungrounding may work in airlines’ favor, he said. Passenger volumes remain a fraction of what they were a year ago and some experts say they don’t expect a significant rebound for several years.
“What will ultimately make the plane acceptable is when it does its job — when it operates without incident,” Harteveldt said. “You know that if a coffee maker breaks it’s going to be news, but at this point I’m hopeful it will have a smooth return to service. The traveling public should have much more confidence in the plane.”
American Airlines said it expects to resume service on the Max at the end of December, starting with one daily flight between Miami International and New York’s LaGuardia airports Dec. 29 through Jan. 4.
Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Gary Kelly said he expects it to take three to four months before the planes are ready for passenger service. The airline has 34 of the jets in its fleet, the most of any U.S. carrier.
Kelly is upbeat on bringing back the Max, and said the process for returning it to regular service would be “deliberate and structured.” In addition to necessary changes to the plane’s software, the carrier will have to train its nearly 7,000 pilots — a process that also will include simulator time.
“It is our most cost-effective aircraft,” Kelly said on an earnings call cast month. “It is our most reliable aircraft. It is our most environmentally friendly aircraft, and it’s our most comfortable aircraft. So we really look forward to flying it again.”
United said it expects to resume service on the Max in the first quarter of 2021, but does not yet have a specific date.
U.S. officials and Boeing executives spent more than a year and a half working with international aviation authorities to try to rebuild trust.
Some vital international partners, including the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, have indicated that they also are close to ungrounding the plane, a much-needed outside endorsement for the fixes made by the beleaguered American manufacturer and a key objective of U.S. officials, whose own credibility has come under assault.
But the European regulators also are calling for additional safety measures beyond those being required by the FAA, including the addition of a new “synthetic” sensor to the Max as an extra layer of protection.
The synthetic sensor would augment the two physical “angle of attack” sensors on the plane. Faulty data from one of the sensors, which measure the relative position of the plane’s nose and oncoming wind, fed MCAS with bad information, which investigators said was a key factor in the crashes.
The European agency said Boeing has agreed to such an addition, and planes would be retrofitted over time, with added procedures for pilots in the meantime to reduce potential risks.
EASA spokeswoman Janet Northcote said the agency will also prohibit pilots from making certain “precision approaches” at airports “surrounded by difficult terrain.” Those would be in place temporarily, pending additional mitigations from Boeing, she said.
Northcote said the European agency and Canadian authorities also will include an instruction allowing pilots to halt an erroneous stall warning, known as a “stick shaker,” part of the cacophony of alarms that distracted pilots ahead of the two crashes.
Europe’s draft ungrounding order will be published for comment this month, and is expected to be finalized around the end of the year or early next year, she said. The publication of that final airworthiness directive “is the moment when EASA sends the message that in its view it is safe to fly on the Max,” Northcote said.
Broader issues raised by the Max crashes have yet to be resolved.
In September, congressional investigators pointed to a dangerously cozy relationship between the FAA and Boeing.
The two crashes “were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA — the pernicious result of regulatory capture on the part of the FAA with respect to its responsibilities to perform robust oversight,” according to the investigation by the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure.
FAA leaders have not pushed to overhaul the agency’s system for overseeing Boeing, and congressional action to require improvements has faced delays. But with the Max hours from being ungrounded, the House passed a bill to strengthen the FAA’s oversight of Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers.
The legislation, shaped by the extensive transportation committee investigation, would give the FAA new authority over Boeing engineers specially approved to conduct safety work on behalf of the government. It also would provide the FAA with $30 million in coming years to recruit engineers and other experts to conduct oversight.
“A U.S. commercial airplane manufacturer and, candidly, the Federal Aviation Administration broke the public trust. Three hundred forty-six innocent people died,” said Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), chairman of the committee and the bill’s leading advocate.
The bipartisan bill also would assemble a panel of experts to review Boeing’s safety culture, extend whistleblower protections to employees at manufacturers and create new guardrails designed to protect the independence of technical experts at the FAA and in industry.
On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee is expected to advance similar legislation. The moves raise the prospect of a package of legal changes being finalized before the end of the congressional term.
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), the committee’s chairman, commended the FAA for following a careful process in reviewing the Max and said his committee would continue its oversight. “Restoring public confidence is of paramount importance,” Wicker said in a statement.
The FAA has told lawmakers that it expects to need to expand its safety workforce by at least 236 people, based on recommendations issued by an international panel that examined its role in initially approving the Max as safe.
In a bill released last week, the Senate Appropriations Committee said it would authorize the agency to hire 75 of them in the coming year, and would provide an extra $5 million so the FAA could accelerate its hiring, which the committee deemed “insufficient” so far to address the challenges.