FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson recently delivered a fresh blow to Boeing by confirming that the 737 Max recertification plan and re-entry into service would slip into 2020. The grounding of the Max is now likely to be extended into a second year; March is the one-year mark and most airlines have removed the troubled airliner from their schedules until June 2020. The fallout from two 737 Max crashes and its subsequent grounding has become the top aviation/aerospace story of 2019, but did it have to?
As the story unfolds, the duration of the 737 Max groundings—the longest of any airliner—might be more related to a lack of leadership and politics than an engineering blunder related to an aircraft subsystem.
The repercussions from the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines Max crashes that claimed 346 lives, only five months apart, have rocked Boeing and stunned the FAA. A vacuum in leadership at the top of each organization would escalate the crisis and fuel an epic kerfuffle that pitted Boeing against the FAA and the rest of the world’s regulators. Only now, with new leaders at the helm of Boeing and the FAA, does a recovery appear to be plausible.
For Boeing, production of the once “best-selling” 737 Max will be suspended, its CEO has been fired, and the company has lost more than $50 billion in market value. Most damaging has been a major hit to the company’s reputation and trust among its customers and pilots.
The FAA has been widely criticized for inaction. Following the second 737 Max crash, aviation authorities around the globe began to ground the aircraft; the FAA reaffirmed its airworthiness. The FAA would be the last to pull its airworthiness certificate only after finding additional evidence that linked the two crashes.
Other criticisms would center on a certification process that was perceived to be overly reliant on a system of organization designation authorizations (ODAs)—often employed by the manufacturer. The FAA’s standing as the world’s leading aviation authority is now in question.
These two crashes exposed the worst of Boeing and the FAA. Under now-fired CEO Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing attempted to control the narrative by establishing false timelines. These actions created confusion and antagonized the regulator. Likewise, a lack of transparency in providing information to pilots and airlines built on the mistrust.
The FAA, under then-acting Administrator Daniel Elwell, earlier this year did little to instill confidence and assurances that the re-certification process was sound. As a result, in the ensuing months after the two crashes, regulators from around the globe, not limited to EASA and Transport Canada, would begin to splinter from the traditional practice of honoring certifications from the FAA and thus began their own evaluations.
For the rest of us, it is now time to recover. From each crash, the primary causal factor was directly related to the aircraft and more specifically the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS). MCAS is a subcomponent of a secondary flight control system; it’s well documented that version 1.0 was poorly designed. Other factors cited by investigators focus on suspect maintenance practices and poor airmanship but, for whatever reason, that’s become a footnote during this whole saga.
The Max is, after all, a 737. Historically, the 737 family with more than 10,500 deliveries is the most popular airliner ever built. Each model introduced was more successful, and each model was statistically safer than its predecessor; the Max should have been no different.
As an example, the 737NG with more than 7,000 aircraft in service (and over 100 million flights) had a fatal accident rate of only 0.06 per million departures—making it one of the safest airliners ever and on par with the Airbus A320 series. The 737NG has been in service for more than 22 years and has only nine fatal mishaps.
One the other hand, time was not on the side of the Max. At the time of the second crash, it had less than 500,000 flights with only 387 aircraft in operation. Two fatal accidents, just as the aircraft was beginning to operationally hit its stride, was catastrophic. In the five-month period surrounding the two crashes, the Max fatal accident rate would increase to 3.08 per million departures—second only to the Concorde, another aircraft that was grounded.
The expectations for the Max was that it would be safer and more efficient than the 737NG. Equipping the Max with the CFM International Leap-1B engine and several aerodynamic tweaks provided a 12 to 15 percent fuel savings. The addition of the Leap—its size and placement—necessitated a new supplemental flight control system to replicate the handling qualities of the 737NG at low speeds and high angle of attack (AoA).
MCAS as originally designed required the input of only one AoA sensor. In each of the Max crashes, a single damaged or faulty AoA sensor was to blame for the erroneous activation of MCAS. This system has been identified as the trigger for each chain of unfortunate and fatal events. Early on during each investigation, the faulty system was isolated as a contributor.
Boeing has since identified the MCAS fix by adding in the necessary redundancy of a secondary AoA sensor input and reprogrammed the software logic to limit systems authority and its ability to misfire. So with the cause of these accidents isolated to a single poorly designed system—the MCAS (its software and system logic)—and a fix in place, why has it taken more than a year to redesign the system and recertify the aircraft?
The recertified Max with its redesigned MCAS will be safe. With the absence of MCAS version 1.0, the Max would still be flying and have an enviable safety record. As re-entry into service nears, there will be more questions related to flight crew training (academics and simulator), but those are secondary to getting the aircraft certified.
FAA Administrator Dickson been clear that he is the “pilot-in-command” and won’t be pushed around. In fact, he insists that he will take the “first leg” by personally piloting the Max before recertification.
After the new year, David Calhoun will take over as Boeing’s new CEO. He has already signaled a decidedly different tack than his predecessor, and it appears as if he’ll be fine sitting in the right seat. Together, the FAA and Boeing can work together to get the Max flying again. Over time, trust and confidence will be rebuilt.
Pilot, safety expert, consultant and aviation journalist Stuart “Kipp” Lau writes about flight safety and airmanship for AIN. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.