On Nov. 18, the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted its grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX, allowing US-based airlines to resume flying the aircraft and paving the way for the FAA’s foreign counterparts to lift their groundings of the aircraft. The move comes 20 months after the FAA and its foreign counterparts grounded the aircraft following two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, which officials linked to a problematic aspect of the aircraft’s flight control system. Boeing and the FAA claim that they have fixed the controversial system and that it no longer poses a threat to passenger safety. The safety of the 737 MAX will likely be a major topic of discussion in the air travel industry in 2021, and WorldAware has prepared answers to questions that travelers and businesses may ask as the aircraft returns to the sky.
While WorldAware is satisfied that Boeing and the FAA have resolved the main issues contributing to the two fatal 737 MAX crashes, we remain concerned that there could still be undetected safety flaws in the 737 MAX design. WorldAware recommends that travelers consider avoiding the 737 MAX for the first year after its return to service.
Has the 737 MAX been fixed?
Boeing’s changes to the 737 MAX will almost certainly prevent the same sequence of events that caused the two fatal 737 MAX crashes from occurring again. Both crashes occurred after a flight control system, called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), repeatedly activated at the wrong time after the aircraft’s computers received inaccurate data from a faulty sensor. Boeing changed MCAS to use data from two sensors instead of one, only activate once, and with less power, allowing pilots to recover the aircraft if it inadvertently activates. Boeing and the FAA will also require airlines to provide pilots with better documentation of MCAS and simulator training on dealing with an inadvertent activation of the system. While MCAS will still be present on the 737 MAX after it returns to service, the changes to the system and pilot training will almost certainly prevent it from threatening passenger safety in the future.
Is the 737 MAX safe to fly on?
While Boeing has almost certainly resolved the safety issues with MCAS, WorldAware is concerned that other safety flaws may still be present on the 737 MAX. While WorldAware is not aware of any specific issues, multiple high-profile investigations into the 737 MAX found major shortcomings in Boeing’s design processes and the FAA’s certification standards during the aircraft’s development. WorldAware is concerned that the Boeing and FAA safety reviews that failed to detect the flaws in MCAS may have failed to detect other safety flaws. These concerns, together with the aircraft’s relatively short service history prior to the grounding, mean that WorldAware cannot rule out the possibility of other safety flaws emerging after the aircraft returns to service. WorldAware recommends that travelers consider avoiding flying on the 737 MAX for a year after the aircraft returns to service. This delay will allow the aircraft to accumulate additional time in service, which should help to expose any other safety issues that may exist.
When will the 737 MAX return to service?
The 737 MAX will likely return to service in late December 2020. American Airlines (AA) has said that it will resume 737 MAX flights Dec. 29, which will likely make it the first airline to return the aircraft to service. Other US carriers have said they will resume flying the aircraft in the first half of 2021.
Will the 737 MAX return to service in other countries as well?
As of Nov. 18, the 737 MAX is not yet cleared to return to service outside of the US, but most of the FAA’s foreign counterparts will likely lift their respective groundings of the 737 MAX by early 2021. Some foreign regulators have indicated that they will require Boeing and airlines to implement changes to pilot training and procedures beyond what the FAA has required before they allow the aircraft to return to service., These changes will be relatively minor and should not cause major delays in the aircraft’s return to service. European and Canadian regulators have asked Boeing for larger changes to the aircraft’s design, but these regulators have said they will allow the aircraft to return to service before the additional changes are implemented.
Chinese authorities may delay the 737 MAX’s return to service in their country. Authorities would present this delay as a safety concern, but it would almost certainly be related to wider political and trade tensions between the US and China. Chinese regulators have taken some unusual actions during the 737 MAX’s grounding, suggesting they are preparing to use the aircraft’s return to service as a bargaining chip in US-China trade negotiations.
What will airlines have to do before returning the 737 MAX to service?
Airlines will have to install Boeing’s updated software on their 737 MAX aircraft, make changes to their pilot manuals, and have their pilots undergo simulator training before returning the 737 MAX to service. Either Boeing or the airlines will also have to make minor changes to each aircraft’s wiring before the aircraft flies again. Airlines will also conduct detailed inspections of their aircraft as they remove them from storage, looking for any damage or corrosion that occurred during the extended grounding. The process of returning all the 737 MAX aircraft to service is likely to be fairly slow; the process is complicated at the best of times, and airlines are in no hurry to add more aircraft during the COVID-19 pandemic.
How can I tell if my flight will be operated by a 737 MAX?
It will likely be difficult for passengers to tell if their flight will be on a 737 MAX. Most airline websites or third-party vendors list aircraft types for passengers who are buying tickets, but airlines are unlikely to use the 737 MAX name on their own sites due to the aircraft’s tarnished reputation. Airlines will likely list the aircraft using its formal designation of 737-7, 737-8, 737-9, or 737-10. These should not be confused with the 737-700, 737-800, and 737-900, which are from the previous generation of 737 that was never grounded and does not have the MCAS system. Ryanair (FR), one of the biggest customers for the 737 MAX, says it will not distinguish between the 737 MAX and the previous generation 737s in its schedules.
Can I avoid flying on the 737 MAX?
Passengers who check aircraft types while booking flights should be able to avoid flying on the 737 MAX. Businesses that wish to prevent employees from flying on the aircraft should check with their travel agencies and other partners to see if they can arrange a prohibition or warning system for employees booking travel. These methods should be effective in most cases, though airlines occasionally make last-minute changes to the aircraft type operating a flight.
Airlines will likely take different approaches to accommodate travelers who decide they want to change flights after finding out they are scheduled to fly on a 737 MAX. United Airlines (UA) has suggested that it will let concerned passengers change their bookings to avoid the 737 MAX. On the other end of the spectrum, Ryanair has said it will not let passengers know in advance if they are booked on a 737 MAX and will not provide any accommodations to passengers who want to change flights.
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