How American Airlines Is Getting Ready To Bring The Boeing 737 MAX Back Into Service

American Airlines President Robert Isom hosted a meeting separately with pilots and with flight attendants updating employees on the 737 MAX. At the final ‘Crew News’ employee forum of the year they walked through Boeing’s changes to the MCAS system in anticipation of the aircraft’s return to service. They’re confident in the fix to the underlying issue that occurred in both the Lion Air and Ethiopian disasters.

Changes That Have Been Made To MCAS

The story of the 737 MAX’s development is well known at this point. For reasons of cost and speed to market Boeing redesigned the 737 – which dates to 1967 – rather than starting from scratch on a new more fuel efficient narrowbody aircraft.

Boeing relocated the plane’s engines higher up and forward. This caused a tendency for the aircraft to pitch up (the nose of the aircraft would nudge up) which created risk of stall. So Boeing developed software to help pilots trim the stabilizer nose down when the plane’s angle of attack is high, flaps are up, and the plane is turning steeply. This was necessary so that the aircraft would handle in the same manner as previous 737s, and maintain the type rating so that the aircraft would be approved as just another 737 rather than starting ground up.

The flight law was triggered based on data from a single angle of attack sensor. When that sensor generated a faulty reading, the software kicked in and forced the plane’s nose down ultimately with disastrous consequences. As an option airlines could order an airline of attack disagree monitor so pilots would know if one sensor was off.

When MCAS activated it would cause a nose down pitch repetitively unless the pilot trims it out and ultimately overrode the flight law.

  • AOA comparison. New software will compare data from both angle of attack sensors, and if there’s a difference of over 5.5 degrees between the sensors MCAS will be inhibited throughout the flgiht.
  • Single activation. MCAS will only activate once, unless the pilot lower angle of aircraft and bring it back up (and then it would only activate once in that case). This eliminates the repetitive nose down pitch.
  • Pilot maintains elevator authority Takes a snapshot of current trim setting, and won’t allow more trim so that the pilot cannot control the pitch of the aircraft.

The pilot no longer has to use the non-normal checklist for runaway stab in order to override MCAS because it becomes inhibited automatically.

When it is de-activated a caution light comes on the forward glare shield. A light illuminates on the overhead panel that says “speed trim fail” and MCAS is inhibited for the duration of the flight.

American Never Experienced Angle Of Attack Anomalies With 737s

American’s training manager points out that while there’s risk of stall at high angles of attack,
“our line pilots train that in the simulator but we never actually do that with customers.”

The airline analyzed its 7000 flights in the aircraft, before the plane was grounded, and didn’t find any issues with unusual trim or angle of attack sensor disagreements.

Right after the Lion Air accident that occurred, our safety department went back and analyzed all the focal data that they could just for the MAX aircraft and they looked for any anomalies they could find in AOA splits or unusual stab positions and I believe they only found one and that one was associated with a wake turbulence signature they saw on approach for an aircraft,

American then took the step of automating notification of any angle of attack anomaly “that would allow them to stop that aircraft and go ahead and look at it.” They did get one notification a week later and “that was just [an] anomaly”

They also did a study of 700,000 hours of Boeing 737-800 aircraft and “didn’t find any AOA issues” which is telling because it’s the same AOA part on 737s MAX and on earlier 737 Next Generation aircraft. They never had an anomaly from the part that feeds data into the MCAS system.

Where American Airlines 737s Are Now

The airline had 24 MAX planes when the model was grounded in March. Since that time 12 more have been delivered. At the time of the grounding planes were all over the American route map, the farthest away was in Barbados. Planes were brought back into the U.S. and from various cities to disparate locations for storage, and then mid-year they were moved as the grounding continued.

  • 8 are in Roswell, New Mexico
  • 16 at the airline’s Tulsa maintenance base
  • Of the 12 deliveries, the initial 6 were stored at Boeing field, then the next 4 in Eastern Washington at Moses Lake, and the final 2 at a secondary airport in San Antonio

american airlines boeing 737 max interior
American Airlines Boeing 737 MAX Interior

American has orders for 100 total 737 MAX aircraft. They’re supposed to have 40 by the end of this year, 50 by the end of 2020 and 100 by end of 2026.

Bringing the 737 MAX Back Into Service

The FAA continues to work towards seeing worldwide safety agencies lift their restrictions on the aircraft at the same time. There will be a 30 day window once the FAA re-certifies the aircraft that will be needed to get planes ready and crew trained. While international safety agencies may not re-certify at the same time exactly, that period gives time in which it’s hoped other agencies will act prior to the plane’s return to commercial service.

If that doesn’t happen “there will be airspace restrictions” which suggests to me that the airline will fly the MAX based on the FAA’s evaluation, not whether world agencies sign off, although of course whether they can fly the plane outside the United States will depend on what other countries do.

The minimum equipment list for the 737 MAX is under comment now. American’s line pilots have been through 1302 training with the aircraft. The had both Dallas and Miami-based crew go through it last Tuesday. The final simulator training is the Joint Operation Evaluation Board, and once completed the FAA will reconsider the airworthiness directive for the aircraft.

They’re expecting pilots to go through computer-based training on changes to the MAX (rather than simulator training). The planes themselves will go through the Tulsa maintenance base before going back into service.

American’s President Robert Isom says there will be “no rebranding this aircraft” instead “the most important thing to restoring any kind of confidence is to simply get the aircraft back flying.”

They expect to run Dallas-Fort Worth – Phoenix charters with employees and Isom says “I can guarantee you every single senior executive and their families, including myself, will be on the first flights. ..once the FAA has said it’s ok, and once our pilots are out there flying it and out there advocating for it.. this is something that will be accepted.”

There will me a messaging campaign to customers that Senior Vice President of Flight Service Jill Surdek describes as “customer information, education, visibility, and flexibility.”

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I doubt AA and Southwest are prepared for the schedule chaos when TurkeyMAX flies. Because I’ll actively avoid it when booking. If due to equipment change it shows up at my gate, I’ll be in line asking for a change. I don’t think I’ll be alone in doing this.

  2. The perfect combination I guess: the most crappy airline with the most unsafe plane.

    Surely these things are not going to fly again.

  3. I applaud AA for the preparation and communications to the staff and eventually the public. I never felt unsafe on the MAX with AA crews. The final report from Lion Air (which has a questionable safety record to begin with) also indicates that this particular plane should have been grounded and the pilots were not properly trained. That is not the case with AA. AA also has ALL the safety equipment and experience. AA, DL, UA and LUV all have exceptional maintenance and the best trained crews in the world. Most people will move on from the fear factor the media continues to spin in a few months and this will be a black spot in Boeing’s history.

  4. @ ron — Your comment is absurd, but I’m sure it will be echoed by other haters.

    This plane was never unsafe for any reasonably-trained pilot to fly. The problem was, of course, that there were (and are) unreasonably trained pilots at certain third-tier airlines. Boeing is now making the plane more idiot proof. This is a good thing.

    I will happily fly the MAX when it returns to AA. I’m not an aviation geek so I won’t reschedule my plans to fly one, but I figure it won’t take too long to wind up on one.

  5. “The most important thing to restoring any kind of confidence is to simply get the aircraft back flying.” Like Boeing’s culture now. Ignore warnings and just let the thing fly and hope for the best.

    Sorry, the article in the NYT’s that showed the FAA in memos predicting dozens of accidents and 2900 lives lost over the 45-year span of this airframe is enough for me.

    As an exec plat let’s be clear, AA…not EVER setting foot on this plane.

  6. @chopsticks. As a WW Kayaker let me give you a comparison to your absurd comment. A 50ft waterfall is relatively save for a well trained and incredibly experienced Class Five boater. So that makes it ok for them, sure. But in the culture of aviation and pilots, and with a worldwide shortage, you are arguing that “Class Five” Pilots are ok with this. And what of the rest of the 80% of pilots who will fly it?

    An experienced pilot is great. But an aircraft that is user friendly and is not a complete mess of a design flaw is necessary. Always build to the lowest common denominator. Especially when lives are at stake…like my daughters.

    I can’t pick my pilot. But I can pick my airplane.

  7. @chopsticks

    Nothing to do with hate. More to do with facts and preferences.

    On the wide spectrum from let say SQ+A350 to AA+737Max I know which one I prefer to fly.

  8. I have enjoyed EXP status for a few years now. I began flying with USAirways when I lived in the East. I stayed with them as they were taken over by America West. The ticketing process on line was seamless even though they still operated separate systems, but if there was a problem on one of the airlines with a flight, that group was unable to make a seamless change. I stayed with them as they merged with American. I have been loyal for more than 30 years.
    My airport is PHX. I travel via DFW to Asia.
    I will not fly on one of the MAX planes.
    If I have to change airlines, I will.
    I will not fly on one of the MAX planes.

  9. I have heard the 737 Max called the flying coffin. Are they going to change the name to the 737 Flying Coffin

  10. You can keep the Max I’m happy to fly other airlines
    besides it being a cost cutting aircraft ignoring maximum safety precautions
    It’s got Americans cramped seating and microscopic bathrooms made perfectly for Dwarfs and munchkins
    All the fixes in the world and it’s still an American Airlines product bad food uncomfortable etc
    Let the lean and skinny ceo Dug Parker fly in it however he will probably clear the plane out so he can comfortably fit in it
    I’m sure he can find a surly flight attendant or 2 to service his marvelous fleet
    He’s certainly made American a culture of friendly satisfied employees and delighted customers offering great value and satisfaction
    At American we are going for great folks (Applause)

  11. It’s always fun to watch the grievously wrongheaded comments from all the self-taught pilots and aeronautical engineers.

    If I stay off AA’s 737 Max aircraft, it’ll be because of the way AA has chosen to outfit the aircraft (and, of course, AA’s abysmal service culture) instead of any concerns about the aircraft.

  12. @ Mike

    I know it is hard to grasp for some americans that there is actually life outside the US, but about 95% of my flights are non US domestic. Several of them on A350’s and some of them on SQ.
    Absurd isn’t it all that non domestic US flying?

  13. “Every single senior executive on the first flights…”

    Yeah right, like they’re gonna be seated in their lovely “oasis” economy seats? Never mind the damn things crashing, I think it’s a safe bet none of them are subjecting themselves to that crappy product.

  14. Rehabilitating the Max’s reputation will be a challenge.
    Unfortunately, we are seeing AA’s typical lack of finesse with both their staff and clientele,
    “We will put the plane on the schedule, and let the agents and fliers fight it out.”

  15. Are they seriously contemplating putting the aviation equivalent of the Ford Pinto back in the sky? It’s not gonna happen outside the US ( or if it does, not for a very long time…)

  16. Russian Roulette! I hope AA is prepared for whats to come, if it ever comes at all. The Max is no safer after the “Fix” then it was before. They have taken no attept to examine the true cause of the crashes, namely the engines and the under sized air frame. This combination and several others like the MCAS system, which is still in place, is a diagram for disaster. I will not becomeva Boeing Guine Pig and i will never fly on a Max! Just remember, there were several hundred flights the Max made before the two crashes and all were safe. But then it happened and then it happened again. I wont be # 3!

  17. Too much cheap-heavy info about Boeing’s business practices to cut costs and not worry about safety. The right thing for Boeing to do is admit to greed, melt down all the 737 Max airframes, apologize to the whole damned world, fire every executive involved in this ongoing fiasco and reconstitute the FAA as an agency with their only priority being passenger safety. My wife and I are never flying AA again until all our conditions are met. The trolls for Boeing and AA on these boards can fly ‘em if they want to, but none of my family will fly AA.

  18. If they think Anyone will ever fly on these planes they are Nuts. Me thinks greed plays a factor here. Let’s not forget the Pinto.

  19. Given the latest news, Boeing has temporarily decided to halt production of the 737 MAX. This has had numerous deleterious effects on suppliers and vendors. Spirit Aerospace that manufactures the fuselage is predicting a significant financial loss in the coming year. GE which manufactures the engines is predicting a significant financial loss as well. The problem has to do with confidence and perception of the aircraft. AA may bring the plane back into its fold. However, how is the flying passenger going to react to this?. Yes it is a good aircraft (totally messed up by faulty MCAS and faulty feedback from one point of attack sensor) but if the flying public feels it is unsafe then where will this lead? It may come to Boeing completely rebranding the plane by calling it something else altogether. The Europeans have already stated that they will not fly the plane in its present form. They want Boeing to totally eliminate MCAS. You have to also admit that Boeing royally messed up. You cannot place a software system such as MCAS into an aircraft and not tell pilots or airlines about it to begin with. What were they thinking? Its like you go out buy a car which has a hidden software system which you are told nothing about in advance. While driving one day a software system takes over and adjusts the steering of your car. You wonder what is going on. You are given no instructions in advance on how to disable such a system. It was a very poor decision on Boeing’s part. Yes Boeing is a great company (I own stock in the company) but in this one instance they royally messed up.

  20. EXP here as well and I shall not fly the MAX for at least the first two years after it returns to flight. Luckily I am semi-retired now and have all the tmie in the world for alternate travel arrangements in order to avoid the MAX. Most of my travel consists of international biz class. If I have to get to the gateway on another airline, that is what I will do.

  21. Phil nails the underlining frustration. “fire every executive involved in this ongoing fiasco and reconstitute the FAA as an agency with their only priority being passenger safety. “. Not a single head is to roll and that is why I will avoid flying on the Max. I don’t care how safe it is.

  22. There is a tremendous amount of information that is unstated in this post that would be necessary for an aeronautical engineer (much less us private pilots and ff types) to know before commenting intelligently on the safety of the MAX.

    I’ll say one thing though. The main cause of airline accidents in the US and everyplace else is pilot error by reasonably trained pilots.

  23. @john This isn’t an engineering blog. Gary’s freq flier audience is mostly overpaid consultants who have no idea what they’re talking about (see above). The irony of this comment section is probably lost on them, but I’m getting a good kick out of it. Once this airframe is certified by the FAA and EASA, it’ll be the safest plane in the sky with no other aircraft subjected to as much scrutiny.

  24. @John +1
    After thousands of additional hours of scrutiny, investigation and pilot training, the MAX will be more than ready to replace 20 and 30 year old aircrafts. 30,000 to 40,000 flights were made before the Lion Air disaster.
    737 pilots that didn’t notice the MCAS system should not have been allowed to fly. It reminds me of these drivers that allowed their Tesla to drive itself while they read a book and got into an accident because the reflection of the sun from a mirror blinded a sensor and confused the AI system, making the car swerve into a semi. Or someone that only knows how to drive a car with automatic transmission, learning how to drive a manual and then complaining, afterwards, that no one ever told him what the 3rd floor pedal was for. Or, worse, not to have noticed the 3rd floor pedal.
    Seriously, the plane was not ready for service 6 months ago. But now, people that don’t hesitate to get on the road with distracted drivers, or even regular drivers, think a Max with two highly trained pilots is a disaster waiting to happen. Maybe in 10 to 15 years, when another design flaw crops up. But not now.

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