2 years after being grounded, the Boeing 737 Max is flying again
Boeing's 737 Max is back in service in most of the world, but China remains a holdout. Plus: Everything you need to know about the aircraft.
Kent GermanFormer senior managing editor / features
Kent was a senior managing editor at CNET News. A veteran of CNET since 2003, he reviewed the first iPhone and worked in both the London and San Francisco offices. When not working, he's planning his next vacation, walking his dog or watching planes land at the airport (yes, really).
Two years after it was banned from flying passengers, the
737 Max has been cleared to return to the skies in much of the world. As part of their decisions, aviation safety agencies in the US, Brazil, Canada, Australia, the UK, the European Union and elsewhere have ordered Boeing and airlines to make repairs to a flight control system blamed for the two crashes that led to the ban; update operating manuals; and increase pilot training. China, the world's second-largest market for commercial air traffic, is still prohibiting the plane from flying, however, and it hasn't indicated when it'll reverse course.
The beleaguered aircraft was grounded worldwide on March 13, 2019, after two crashes, one in Indonesia in 2018 and the other in Ethiopia in 2019, that killed a combined total of 346 people. Apart from the human tragedy, it was a huge blow to Boeing's business, since the company has thousands of 737 Max orders on its books. In addition to the flight control system at the center of both investigations, other reports identified concerns with the airliner's flight control computer, wiring and engines.
Airlines are now slowly adding the 737 Max back into their schedules. Southwest was the latest carrier to do so when it resumed flights March 11. The plane is now back in service with all US carriers, but Boeing will have to work vigorously to retain the trust of airlines and the flying public in regard to the Max family. Here's everything else we know about what's happened with the airliner.
What happened in the two crashes?
In the first crash, on Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 dove into the Java Sea 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 189 people. The flight crew made a distress call shortly before losing control. That aircraft was almost brand-new, having arrived at Lion Air three months earlier.
The second crash occurred on March 10, 2019 when Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 departed Addis Ababa Bole International Airport bound for Nairobi, Kenya. Just after takeoff, the pilot radioed a distress call and was given immediate clearance to return and land. But before the crew could make it back, the aircraft crashed 40 miles from the airport, six minutes after it left the runway. Aboard were 149 passengers and eight crew members. The aircraft involved was only four months old.
What caused the crashes?
On Oct. 25, 2019, the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee published its final report on the Lion Air crash. The report identifies nine factors that contributed to the crash, but largely blames MCAS. Before crashing, the Lion Air pilots were unable to determine their true airspeed and altitude and they struggled to take control of the plane as it oscillated for about 10 minutes. Each time they pulled up from a dive, MCAS pushed the nose down again.
"The MCAS function was not a fail-safe design and did not include redundancy," the report said. Investigators also found that MCAS relied on only one sensor, which had a fault, and flight crews hadn't been adequately trained to use the system. Improper maintenance procedures and the lack of a cockpit warning light (see below question) contributed to the crash, as well.
On March 9, 2020, almost one year to the day since the crash in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau published an interim analysis. Like the Indonesian findings, it cites design flaws with MCAS such its reliance on a single angle-of-attack sensor. It also blamed Boeing for providing inadequate training to crew on using the Max's unique systems. (The Seattle Times has a great deep dive on the report.)
Unlike their Indonesian counterparts, the Ethiopian investigators do not mention maintenance problems. "The aircraft has a valid certificate of airworthiness and maintained in accordance with applicable regulations and procedures," the report said. "There were no known technical problems before departure."
Remember that crash investigations are tremendously complex -- it takes months to evaluate the evidence and determine a probable cause. Investigators must examine the debris, study the flight recorders and, if possible, check the victims' bodies to determine the cause of death. They also involve multiple parties including the airline, the airplane and engine manufacturers, and aviation regulatory agencies.
What is the Boeing 737 Max?
Built to compete with the Airbus A320neo, the 737 Max is a family of commercial aircraft that consists of four models. The Max 8, which is the most popular version, made its first flight on Jan. 29, 2016, and entered passenger service with Malaysia's Malindo Air on May 22, 2017. (Malindo no longer flew the plane by the time of the first crash.) Seating between 162 and 210 passengers, depending on the configuration, it's designed for short- and medium-haul routes, but also has the range (3,550 nautical miles, or about 4,085 miles) to fly transatlantic and between the mainland US and Hawaii. The Max 9 first flew in 2017, the Max 7 in March, 2018 and the Max 10 on June 18, 2021.
The design of the 737 Max series is based on the Boeing 737, an aircraft series that has been in service since 1968. As a whole, the 737 family is the best-selling airliner in history. At any given time, thousands of some version of it are airborne around the world and some airlines, like Southwest and Ryanair, have all-737 fleets. If you've flown even occasionally, you've most likely flown on a 737.
The 737 Max family compared
737 Max 7
737 Max 8
737 Max 9
737 Max 10
Length (in feet)
3,850 nautical miles
3,550 nautical miles
3,550 nautical miles
3,300 nautical miles
What's different about the 737 Max series compared with earlier 737s?
Those engines, though, required Boeing to make critical design changes. Because they're bigger, and because the 737 sits so low to the ground (a deliberate design choice to let it serve small airports with limited ground equipment), Boeing moved the engines slightly forward and raised them higher under the wing. (If you place an engine too close to the ground, it can suck in debris while the plane is taxiing.) That change allowed Boeing to accommodate the engines without completely redesigning the 737 fuselage -- a fuselage that hasn't changed much in 50 years.
But the new position of the engines changed how the aircraft handled in the air, creating the potential for the nose to pitch up during flight. A pitched nose is a problem in flight -- raise it too high and an aircraft can stall. To keep the nose in trim, Boeing designed software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. When a sensor on the fuselage detects that the nose is too high, MCAS automatically pushes the nose down. (For background on MCAS, read these excellent in-depth stories from The Air Current and The Seattle Times.)
When was the Max grounded?
About 30 airlines operated the Max by the time of the second crash (the three largest customers being Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada). Most of them quickly grounded their planes a few days later. Besides the airlines already mentioned that list includes United Airlines, WestJet, Aeromexico, Aerolíneas Argentinas, GOL Linhas Aéreas, Turkish Airlines, FlyDubai, Air China, Copa Airlines, Norwegian, Hainan Airlines, Fiji Airways and Royal Air Maroc.
More than 40 countries also banned the 737 Max from flying in their airspace. China (a huge Boeing customer and a fast-growing commercial aviation market) led the way and was joined by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, India, Oman, the European Union and Singapore. Canada initially hesitated, but soon reversed course.
Older 737 models, like the 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900, don't use MCAS and weren't affected.
What was the problem with the warning light?
Both the Lion Air and Ethiopian planes lacked a warning light designed to alert pilots to the faulty sensor and that Boeing sold the light as part of an optional package of equipment. When asked about the warning light, a Boeing spokesman gave CNET the following statement:
"All Boeing airplanes are certified and delivered to the highest levels of safety consistent with industry standards. Airplanes are delivered with a baseline configuration, which includes a standard set of flight deck displays and alerts, crew procedures and training materials that meet industry safety norms and most customer requirements. Customers may choose additional options, such as alerts and indications, to customize their airplanes to support their individual operations or requirements."
But on April 29, 2019, The Wall Street Journal said that even for airlines that had ordered it, the warning light wasn't operating on some Max planes that had been delivered (a fact the Indonesian accident report confirmed). Then on June 7, 2019, Reps. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, and Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington, said they'd obtained information suggesting that even though the plane maker knew the safety alert wasn't working, it decided to wait until 2020 to implement a fix.
Boeing responded to DeFazio and Larsen in a statement sent to CNET the same day.
"The absence of the AOA Disagree alert did not adversely impact airplane safety or operation," the statement read. "Based on the safety review, the update was scheduled for the MAX 10 rollout in 2020. We fell short in the implementation of the AoA Disagree alert and are taking steps to address these issues so they do not occur again."
What kind of MCAS training did 737 Max pilots receive?
Not much, which was a factor cited in both crash reports. As the Indonesian report said, "The absence of guidance on MCAS or more detailed use of trim in the flight manuals and in flight crew training, made it more difficult for flight crews to properly respond." Airline pilots are thoroughly trained to fly an aircraft under extraordinary circumstances, but they need accurate information about factors like airspeed and altitude to be able to make quick decisions in an emergency.
Though MCAS was a new feature, existing 737 pilots didn't have to train on a simulator before they could start flying the Max. Instead, they learned about the differences it brought through an hour's worth of iPad-based training. MCAS received scant mention. The reason? It was because Boeing, backed by the FAA, wanted to minimize the cost and time of certifying pilots who'd already been trained on other 737 versions. To do so, Boeing and the FAA treated the Max as just another 737 version, rather than a completely new airplane (which it pretty much is).
What other issues with the aircraft besides MCAS were identified?
There are a few.
In December, 2019, the FAA said it was looking at a potential problem with two bundles of wiring that power control surfaces on the aircraft's horizontal stabilizer. Because the bundles are close together, there's a remote possibility that they could short-circuit and (if not noticed by the flight crew) send the plane into a dive. Boeing initially argued a fix wasn't necessary, since earlier 737s have the same wiring design, and has proposed leaving the bundles as they are.
In April, 2020, the FAA instructed Boeing to make two additional computer fixes to the airplane beyond MCAS. One, a possible fault in a flight control computer, could lead to a loss of control from the horizontal stabilizer, while the second could lead the autopilot feature to potentially disengage during final approach.
For Boeing's part, the report cited the company's "inadequate communications" to the FAA about MCAS, pilot training and shortage of technical staff. The review was conducted by representatives from NASA, the FAA and civil aviation authorities from Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Singapore, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.
Watch this: Boeing CEO: 737 Max soon to be one of the safest planes
"There is no greater priority for our company and our industry," Boeing said in a March 13, 2019 statement. "We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again."
As is common after a crash, Boeing didn't comment on preliminary findings of either investigation, but the day after the Ethiopian crash the company said it would issue a software update that would include changes to MCAS, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.
Following the Lion Air accident report, then CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the company was "addressing" its safety recommendations. "We commend Indonesia's KNKT for its extensive efforts to determine the facts of this accident, the contributing factors to its cause and recommendations aimed toward our common goal that this never happens again," he said.
Did Boeing know about Max problems before the crashes?
There is evidence that it did. On Oct. 17, 2019, Boeing revealed text messages between two of the company's top pilots sent in 2016, which indicated the company knew about problems with the MCAS system early on. In one of the messages, a former chief technical pilot for the Boeing 737 described the MCAS' habit of engaging itself as "egregious."
Later that month, as he appeared before two congressional committees, Muilenburg admitted Boeing knew of the test pilot concerns in early 2019. "I was involved in the document collection process, but I relied on my team to get the documents to the appropriate authorities," he said. "I didn't get the details of the conversation until recently."
Yes, but it didn't happen quickly. Though Muilenburg apologized to the victims' families in an interview with CBS News in May, 2019, he came under sharp criticism for his response to the crashes. On Oct. 11, 2019, Boeing announced it had taken away his role as chair so that as CEO, Muilenburg could "focus full time on running the company as it works to return the 737 Max safely to service."
Muilenburg spent the next two months resisting calls for his resignation from his other position, but on Dec. 23, 2019 the company announced that he had stepped down. "The Board of Directors decided a change in leadership was necessary to restore confidence in the company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders," Boeing said in a statement. Chairman David Calhoun officially replaced Muilenburg on Jan. 13, 2020.
Calhoun had defended Muilenburg before taking the top role, but in a March 5, 2020 interview with the New York Times he said his predecessor had needlessly rushed production of the Max before the company was ready. "I'll never be able to judge what motivated Dennis, whether it was a stock price that was going to continue to go up and up, or whether it was just beating the other guy to the next rate increase."
Separately, on Oct. 22, 2019, the company said it replaced Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Kevin McAllister, the official overseeing the 737 Max investigation, with Stan Deal, former president and CEO of Boeing Global Services.
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But on Jan. 16, 2020, an independent panel set up by the Department of Transportation (the FAA is a division of the DOT) dismissed that criticism. In its report, the committee found no significant problems with how the Max was cleared to fly. Though the committee said the FAA could improve the certification process, it saw no need for substantial changes.
Those findings were largely echoed by a report from the Department of Transportation inspector general's office on Feb. 24 that made 14 recommendations for revising the FAA's certification program. Though the 55-page report said the FAA didn't deviate from an established protocol when it first cleared the plane to fly in 2016, it significantly misunderstood the MCAS flight control system.
Outside of the certification process, the FAA slapped Boeing with two fines for installing substandard or unapproved equipment in some Max planes. With the first fine, which the FAA proposed in January 2020 for $5.4 million, the agency said Boeing used improper equipment to guide the slats on 178 Max planes. Positioned at the leading edge of each wing, slats are deployed at takeoff and landing to provide more lift. The FAA also accused Boeing of installing a guidance system on 173 Max planes that used sensors that hadn't been properly tested. The proposed penalty is $19.68 million.
Yes. In March 2020, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure released a report on the design, development and certification of the 737 Max and the FAA's oversight of Boeing. It said "acts, omissions, and errors occurred across multiple stages and areas of the development and certification of the 737 MAX." The report went on to identify five specific issues.
Production pressures: There was tremendous financial pressure on Boeing and the 737 Max program to compete with the A320neo, leading the company to rush the plane into service.
Faulty assumptions: Boeing made fundamentally faulty assumptions about critical technologies on the 737 Max, most notably with MCAS.
Culture of concealment: In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers and 737 Max pilots.
Conflicted representation: The FAA's current oversight structure over Boeing creates inherent conflicts of interest that have jeopardized the safety of the flying public.
Boeing's influence over the FAA's oversight: Multiple career FAA officials documented examples of FAA management overruling the determination of the agency's own technical experts at the behest of Boeing.
On Sept. 16, the House Transportation Committee issued a report that blamed the crashes on a "horrific culmination" of failures at Boeing and the FAA. "In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and 737 MAX pilots," the report said. And as for the FAA, "the fact that a compliant airplane suffered from two deadly crashes in less than five months is clear evidence that the current regulatory system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be repaired."
First off, Max airlines had to look for parking spaces for the roughly 300 Max aircraft Boeing had delivered by the time the worldwide order went into effect. That's a tremendously complicated effort by itself.
But while airlines can't fly the plane (except to ferry empty aircraft from one airport to another) Boeing was able to conduct test flights for evaluating its proposed fixes.
On May 16, 2019, the company said its updates were largely complete after more than 135 test flights. Five months later, on Oct. 22, the company said it had made "significant progress" toward that goal by adding flight control computer redundancy to MCAS and three additional layers of protection. It also had conducted simulator tests for 445 participants from more than 140 customers and regulators. Boeing provided a further progress report Nov. 11, 2019.
Boeing and the FAA finally began the recertification flights on June 29. The flights attempted to trigger the steps that led to the two crashes and confirm that MCAS isn't activating erroneously. The FAA also reviewed pilot training materials and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson piloted the plane on a Sept. 30 test flight to evaluate Boeing's changes. Speaking to reporters after the flight he said he "liked what I saw."
When did the FAA lift the grounding order, and what are its proposed fixes?
MCAS must compare data from more than one sensor and avoid relying on a single angle-of-attack sensor that's giving faulty readings.
All aircraft must have a warning light that shows when two sensors are disagreeing.
When MCAS activates, it must do so only once, rather than activating repeatedly (another factor that contributed to both crashes).
If MCAS is erroneously activated, flight crews must always be able to counter the movement by pulling back on the control column.
Pilots must get more-rigorous training on MCAS, including time in a Max simulator (see next question).
Outside of MCAS, the FAA identified other modifications Boeing must make, including separating two bundles of wiring that power control surfaces on the aircraft's horizontal stabilizer to ensure redundancy if one of the bundles fails.
Not everyone is trusting in the FAA's decision, though. On March 10, relatives of some of the Ethiopian crash victims asked the agency to reverse its decision. In a meeting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, they also called for several top FAA officials to be removed.
How will pilot training change?
Simulator time focusing on MCAS will now be required, a change from a position the FAA previously took. It took lobbying from pilots and regulatory officials from other countries, like Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau, to change that decision.
They won an influential supporter on June 19, 2019, when "Miracle on the Hudson" Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger argued before a congressional committee that simulator training should be required before pilots take the Max back into the air. He also said the original design of MCAS was "fatally flawed and should never have been approved."
On Jan. 7, 2020, Boeing agreed when it issued a recommendation that pilots receive simulator training on MCAS before the Max returns to service. Simulator sessions will require extra time and expense for airlines struggling to get their Max fleets back in the air.
What happens next?
Before airlines can fly the Max again, Boeing must work with them to make the required fixes and retrain pilots. Only then will the FAA sign off on certification for each aircraft. That will take time.
But that's just in the US. Aviation regulatory agencies around the world also need to approve the fix before they'll let the Max fly to the countries they oversee. Traditionally, they've followed the FAA's lead on such matters, but Transport Canada, China, the European Aviation Safety Agency and the UK's Civil Aviation Authority conducted independent tests of the plane on different timelines while working with the FAA.
China is still conducting its review, and has not set a timetable for any updates.
How will I know I'm booked on a Max flight and will I be able to change my reservation?
Your aircraft type will be listed in the flight details as you book. Some airlines will spell out the full aircraft name as "737 Max," while other carriers may shorten it to "7M8." If you're not sure, contact a reservations agent to confirm. Just remember, though, that airlines can change the aircraft type for your flight at the last minute.
For now at least, all US airlines operating the Max will allow you to change your flight with penalty or cancel your trip for either a full refund or a travel credit. The exact details will vary, and I wouldn't expect the policies to last forever, so click the link above and confirm with your airlines as you book.
How important is the Max series to Boeing?
Hugely important. Boeing and Airbus are in a fierce battle for the 150- to 200-seat aircraft market. Following the second crash, new orders for the 737 Max slowed dramatically, and some carriers canceled or delayed their orders, a trend only hastened by the travel slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic.
Yes. In the most recent example, the FAA grounded the Boeing 787 for three months in 2013 after a series of nonfatal battery fires. Before that, the FAA grounded the Douglas DC-10 for a month in 1979 after a crash near Chicago O'Hare Airport killed 271 people on board, plus two on the ground. (Outside of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that remains the deadliest airplane crash on US soil.) The Chicago crash was ultimately attributed to improper maintenance. The crash of a DC-10 in 1974 in France, killing 346 people, was caused by a design flaw on a cargo hold door latch.