After nearly two years and a pair of deadly crashes, the US Federal Aviation Administration has cleared Boeing’s 737 Max for flight.
The nation’s air safety agency announced the move early Wednesday, saying it was done after a “comprehensive and methodical” 20-month review process.
Regulators around the world grounded the Max in March 2019, after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet. That happened less than five months after another Max flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea. A total of 346 passengers and crew members on both planes were killed.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson signed an order Wednesday rescinding the grounding. US airlines will be able to fly the Max once Boeing updates critical software and computers on each plane and pilots receive training in flight simulators.
The FAA says the order was made in cooperation with air safety regulators worldwide. “Those regulators have indicated that Boeing’s design changes, together with the changes to crew procedures and training enhancements, will give them the confidence to validate the aircraft as safe to fly in their respective countries and regions,” the FAA said in a statement.
The move follows exhaustive congressional hearings on the crashes that led to criticism of the FAA for lax oversight and Boeing for rushing to implement a new software system that put profits over safety and ultimately led to the firing of its CEO.
Investigators focused on anti-stall software that Boeing had devised to counter the plane’s tendency to tilt nose-up because of the size and placement of the engines. That software pushed the nose down repeatedly on both planes that crashed, overcoming the pilots’ struggles to regain control. In each case, a single faulty sensor triggered the nose-down pitch.
The new software now requires inputs from two sensors in order to activate the software. Boeing says the software also does not override the pilot’s controls like it did in the past.
The company changed the software so it doesn’t repeatedly point the nose of the plane down to counteract possible aerodynamic stalling. Boeing also must install new display systems for pilots and change the way wires are routed to a tail stabiliser bar.
“These events and the lessons we have learned as a result have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity,” Boeing CEO David Calhoun said in a statement.
Boeing’s redemption comes in the middle of a pandemic that has scared away passengers and decimated the aviation industry, limiting the company’s ability to make a comeback. Air travel in the US alone is down about 65% from a year ago.
Boeing sales of new planes have plunged because of the Max crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Orders for more than 1,000 Max jets have been canceled or removed from Boeing’s backlog this year. Each plane carries a sticker price between US$99 million and US$135 million, although airlines routinely pay far less than list price.
American is the only US airline to put the Max back in its schedule so far, starting with one round trip daily between New York and Miami beginning Dec. 29. United says it expects to start using the plane in the first quarter of 2021. Southwest said previously it did not expect to use the plane until at least the second quarter.
Nearly 400 Max jets were in service worldwide when they were grounded, and Boeing has built and stored about 450 more since then. All have to undergo maintenance and get some modifications before they can fly.
Pilots must also undergo simulator training, which was not required when the aircraft was introduced. Hansman said pilot training for qualified 737 pilots shouldn’t take long because Boeing has fixed software problems.