Going Direct: Insanity? Boeing Launches New Version of 737 Max While Plane Still Grounded

Boeing 737 Max 10
A Boeing 737 Max 10 flying over Singapore in this artist's rendition.

To the astonishment of many, Boeing has launched a new version of its 737 Max, the 737 Max 10, a larger version of the plane that can carry as many as 230 passengers. Somewhat surprisingly, Boeing has numerous orders for the Max 10, including, according to one report, possibly from Lion Air. Still, the unveiling was as low key as can be, with Boeing officials refraining from the usual boasting about the plane and the lineup, and instead talking about the safety of the fix and the Max’s return to service, a date that’s still uncertain but will almost surely be sometime in 2020. Some are pointing to March as a probable date, while others say it might be a longer haul than that. One thing is sure: optimism hasn’t been a good position to take at any point in this sad saga.

It has been more than a year now since our first inkling that Boeing’s newly fielded 737 Max, an update to the hugely successful 737 lineup of single-aisle airliners, had a fatal flaw. It was after the crash of Lion Air 610 after departing Jakarta, Indonesia, that the plane went out of control and crashed, killing all 189 aboard. It was then that most of us first heard of MCAS, an automation system designed to enhance stability that, it was feared, had confused and overpowered the pilots of the Lion Air flight. It was sometime after another 737 Max tragedy, that of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which crashed shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa Airport in Ethiopia, killing 149, that MCAS’s role in the accidents became close to certain. Yet, it was only after a protracted battle from both Boeing and the FAA to keep the 737 Max flying in light of the grounding of the jet by every other aviation regulator in the world, that the FAA finally conceded and grounded the new jet.

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Since then Boeing, under extra close scrutiny from the FAA, has been working to fix MCAS and get the Max flying again. And Boeing’s announcement earlier this month that it was aiming to get the fix approved in time to get the plane flying by early in the New Year was met almost immediately by a response from FAA Administrator Steve Dickson saying in essence that Boeing should cool its jets and let the FAA do its job, something it was taken to task by Congress for not doing in the runup to certification of the Max.

Right now hundreds of 737 Max planes are on the ground in Renton, Washington, Boeing’s home, as well as in other mothball yards in California. Boeing says that it needs to get the plane re-approved and flying again, or it might have to shut down its assembly line, which no one wants to happen.

While Boeing diehards continue to defend MCAS while putting blame on the pilots in the crashed planes—the tide of opinion is high and powerful. And pilots’ unions are even getting into the act—the Southwest Airlines pilots’ association suing the airplane maker in order to recoup lost wages for its pilots who flew less or not, all in the wake of the Max grounding.

There’s apparently no consensus that MCAS should be fixed. Multiple sources have reported on the story that Transport Canada’s Jim Marko has shared with other regulators around the world—that he believes that MCAS shouldn’t be fixed but scrapped altogether, a point of view, the New York Times reported, that at least one senior official at the FAA agreed with.

It’s likely, though not certain at this point, that the MCAS tale will continue to be a complex one, for even if Boeing’s fix is approved by the FAA for a return to service by Boeing’s hoped-for March 2020, timeframe, there’s no guarantee that other regulators will accept the fix. If they don’t, Boeing might be forced to  reengineer the Max without MCAS, and the only sure thing about that solution is that it would take much longer than Boeing appears able to wait.

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