The 737 MAX Could Be Re-Certified in June, Fly Again This Summer

After two Boeing 737 MAX tragedies we’ve come to learn a tremendous amount about the aircraft, how it was developed, and how it gained certification.

Engineering compromises were made to make the legacy Boeing 737 more efficient in a cost-effective way on an aggressive timeline. To compensate for aerodynamics issues created by moving the plane’s engines, Boeing created Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software that could address an issue where the plane’s nose would pitch up, triggered by the aircraft’s angle of attack sensors.

  • The system was being engaged 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.

  • Many pilots of the aircraft type didn’t know about or understand the system, so didn’t understand what was happening when the system triggered and didn’t know how to override it.

  • Some of the plane’s safety features were optional add-ons.

  • These issues weren’t caught during certification, where it turns out that the plane didn’t even conform in some material ways to how Boeing indicated it was supposed to operate.

Planes with multiple angle of attack sensors, operated by pilots who understand the aircraft and all of its systems including handling MCAS, have operated without issue. But the 737 MAX’s design was more prone to disastrous failure when these circumstances weren’t present. So the aircraft manufacturer has updated the software so it won’t overwhelm pilots automatically when something goes wrong, and has worked on improved pilot training so aircraft operators are better equipped to handle things if they do.

I don’t have concerns flying the aircraft on a US airline. Doug Parker told the airline’s employees he’d be on the first flight. United’s CEO Oscar Munoz told media he’d take the first flight.

These moves will be meant to reassure the traveling public, who will at least initially be skittish. Southwest says they won’t charge passengers to change their flights to avoid the MAX once it goes back into service. Since Southwest already doesn’t have change fees, that presumably means no difference in fare.

A major concern is mixed messaging, the US FAA — which has taken lumps over certification of the aircraft and its response to the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines incidents — approving the plane for flight, while foreign regulators indicating they aren’t convinced. That would lead some to worry the agency was being pushed too hard by an American aircraft manufacturer and American airlines.

On Wednesday I wrote that the FAA would be trying to convince the world’s regulators to re-certify the Boeing 737 MAX. American Airlines CEO Doug Parker said he expects the plane to fly in ‘weeks, not months’ but that the FAA would want a critical mass of other world regulators to sign off on the plane as well as part of convincing the public that it’s safe to fly — however several countries would likely be recalcitrant for political reasons.

And no doubt politics plays into it. Some countries will want to stick it to Boeing as a proxy for trade disputes with the U.S. There are may be an opportunity for some countries to extract concessions from the U.S. in exchange for going along. And regulators can be inherently conservative, especially after two disasters, none want to be blamed or bet wrong and see another incident after they’ve signed off. Yet no one wants to operate the plane when there are mixed messages over its safety.

The FAA’s diplomacy has remained surprisingly diplomatic. It’s clear the FAA wants to see recertification soon, kicking off a process that will allow pilots to go through new training and airlines perform maintenance to bring aircraft back into their fleets.

While everyone publicly states that each country will make their own determinations, none have said they are officially unconvinced that the plane should fly or that the path the FAA and Boeing have laid out will be insufficient to see that happen. Instead regulators have remained non-committal on contentious issues like whether they’d require pilots to be simulator-trained on the MCAS system or whether home-based software training Boeing is pushing for will suffice.

The US government is ready to see the 737 MAX re-certified by the end of June — mere weeks from now, as Parker predicted. Whether or not that happens may depend on getting some other world agencies to go along. They won’t likely have unanimity, and won’t hold themselves to that standard. But I imagine they’ll hold off until they get Europe and Canada, though not China, to sign off with them.

Once that happens it will take time for airlines to go through steps to bring the plane back into their schedule, which makes cancellations through mid-August taken weeks ago by US carriers seem wise — and suggests that the process to bring the MAX back to the skies is proceeding as expected.

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, 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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  1. I have always been a supporter of Boeing, but never thought the MAX was a good idea. They should have worked on a clean sheet narrow/semi wide body plane and been a few years behind Airbus’ neos. This would have solved the 797 issue as well.

    I think the CEO needs to go and some engineers / leaders fired over this. It was designed and presented poorly; the crisis was handled badly and additional lives could have been saved if this was taken more seriously by Boeing and the FAA after the Lion Air crash.

    The FAA needs to be investigated as well. They have no credibility in my eyes.

  2. I believe Boeing was considering an all new narrow body plane to respond to the A320NEO. But several airlines, such as Southwest and American, made clear they wanted an updated 737 sooner rather than all new plane later. So the 737MAX idea started. However, when AA placed a massive Airbus A320NEO order back in 2011, I think Boeing panicked and rushed the 737MAX development in a desperate attempt to maintain market share.

  3. You say that other countries won’t recertify for political reasons, but it seems to me the US will recertify for political reasons. I don’t trust the FAA anymore and wouldn’t even consider flying on a 737 Max until it’s been certified by the EU and Brazil.

  4. Quoting Gary Leff, “I don’t have concerns flying the aircraft on a US airline. Doug Parker told the airline’s employees he’d be on the first flight. United’s CEO Oscar Munoz told media he’d take the first flight.”

    I have a great idea, put Parker and Munoz on the first test flight simulating a failure, hopefully we could get rid of both scumbags at the same time.

  5. It’s funny Doug Parker talks about playing politics when I’m sure he’s voicing his support because out of the 3 legacy airlines AA is suffering the most by the grounding. I wish he would stop playing with human lives and let the agencies do their due diligence and not try to pretend it’s his job. As for Boeing, I am just a bit disappointed that they would have the safety feature as an option instead of the default in the first place! Again, choosing $ over human lives. I’m still waiting to hear more about the bird strike that suddenly appeared too.

  6. Publicly, the debate is whether pilots have to be retrained — with the European Union and Canada demanding this.

    This is my speculation, but the plane is dead. The reason that Boeing obscured the computer program in question is that it did not want to acknowledge that the Super Max is structurally flawed. No one wants a plane that is literally designed to crash.

    It was a tremendous error not to scrap the 737 and build a new plane from scratch. Now, the Boeing brand is compromised and it is even farther behind Airbus.

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