Boeing 737 Max gets FAA clearance to resume flights

Boeing must first improve pilot training and modify a critical flight computer, but one airline says it could resume 737 Max flights by the end of the year.

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The US Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday cleared the Boeing 737 Max to resume commercial flights in the US following a nearly two-year review after the planes were grounded in 2019 in the wake of two fatal crashes.

"The path that led us to this point was long and grueling, but we said from the start that we would take the time necessary to get this right," said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in a video message. "I am 100% comfortable with my family flying on it." A former commercial pilot, Dickson flew a Max aircraft on a test flight in September.

The 737 Max had been grounded worldwide since March 2019, after two crashes, the first of which occurred in Indonesia in October 2018, killed 346 people. Boeing says it has since fixed the MCAS flight control system that was blamed for both accidents and has taken steps to improve its focus on safety and quality. 

While the FAA rescinded its order that grounded the 737 Max, the planes won't be immediately returning to the sky. The agency must still approve pilot training revision for each US airline operating the Max, and the airlines must update the planes -- including installing software enhancements -- before they can return to service. 

"The FAA's directive is an important milestone," said Stan Deal, president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, in a press release. "We will continue to work with regulators around the world and our customers to return the airplane back into service worldwide." 

What needs to change

As part of its announcement, the FAA released a summary of its review process and an Airworthiness Directive outlining the design changes that airlines and Boeing must make before the Max can carry passengers again. Most concern MCAS, a feature unique to the Max family that's designed to push the aircraft's nose down during flight when the nose is too high.

Those fixes include:

  • Up until now MCAS was activated by a single angle-of-attack sensor on the plane's fuselage. But in both crashes, faulty sensor readings activated MCAS when it shouldn't have. Moving forward, MCAS must compare data from more than one sensor.
  • All aircraft must have a warning light that shows when two sensors are disagreeing. In the Indonesian crash, a software bug meant that the light was working only if operator Lion Air had purchased a package of equipment Boeing sold only as an option.
  • MCAS will activate only once rather than activating repeatedly, another factor that contributed to both crashes.
  • If MCAS is erroneously activated, flight crews will always be able to counter the movement by pulling back on the control column. In both crashes pilots struggled to counteract the MCAS-commanded movements.
  • Pilots will need more rigorous training on MCAS including time in a Max simulator. When the Max was first certified in 2017, existing 737 pilots only had to complete an hour's worth of iPad-based training with little mention of how MCAS works.

Outside of MCAS, the FAA also 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. 

Now on the airlines

Three US airlines currently have the Max in their fleets: Southwest, American and United. (Alaska Airlines has ordered the plane, but has yet to receive any.) Since the grounding order, the carriers have been forced to park and maintain their Max planes at airports around the country.

Upon meeting the FAA's mandates American is promising the earliest return to service, with one round-trip Max flight a day between New York LaGuardia and Miami starting Dec. 29. In a statement released Wednesday, the airline said customers who don't want to fly on the Max, won't have to. "If a customer prefers to not fly on this aircraft, we'll provide flexibility to ensure they can be easily re-accommodated."

United predicts a first-quarter return, though its exact timeline is still in flux. "United's Max fleet won't return to service until we have completed more than 1,000 hours of work on every aircraft, including FAA-mandated changes to the flight software, additional pilot training, multiple test flights and meticulous technical analysis to ensure the planes are ready to fly," the airline said in a statement sent to CNET. 

Southwest will wait a bit longer. In a statement also released Wednesday, Chairman and CEO Gary Kelly said the airline won't start flying the Max until at least the second quarter of 2021. "Before we return the aircraft to customer service, however, every active Southwest Pilot will complete additional FAA-required flight training," the statement said. "Additionally, Southwest will conduct multiple readiness flights on each of our 34 Max aircraft and complete thousands of hours of work, inspections, and the software updates before any of our Customers board a Southwest 737 Max."

Still to come

Outside of the US, about two dozen airlines operate the Max. While in the past, other aviation safety agencies like those in Canada and the European Union have closely followed the FAA's lead on certifications, controversy over whether FAA's original approval was rigorous enough has led them to conduct their own reviews of the aircraft. 

Those reviews could require modifications to the aircraft the FAA didn't ask for. And until they're completed, airlines in those countries won't be able to fly the 737 Max, nor will US carriers be permitted to fly the aircraft in their airspace.

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Jagello G. Fayl, the deputy head of communication for the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, said in an email the EASA will publish a Proposed Airworthiness Directive later this month. Its final decision will then come after a 28-day public comment period and a period for the agency to review the feedback.

"Airlines will have to ensure that their pilots have received the prescribed training and that maintenance has been carried out to ensure the plane is safe to fly after the long grounding," Fayl said. "In some EU states, individual grounding notices will also need to be lifted."

Brazil's National Civil Aviation Agency and Transport Canada said their work is still ongoing. 

"We expect this process to conclude very soon," Canadian Minister of Transport Marc Garneau said in a statement. "However, there will be differences between what the FAA has approved today, and what Canada will require for its operators. These differences will include additional procedures on the flight deck and pre-flight, as well as differences in training."