Two years after airlines around the world grounded their Boeing 737 MAX aircraft following two fatal accidents – the Lion Air crash in October 2018 and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019 – the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cleared the aircraft to fly again in the US.
The aircraft were grounded due to safety concerns after the Ethiopian crash, when it became apparent that pilots had lost control of the aircraft because of an issue with a sensor in its flight control system.
The move by the FAA will allow airlines that are under FAA’s jurisdiction to take the steps necessary to resume service. An Airworthiness Directive issued by the FAA spells out a number of requirements that must be met before carriers can resume service, including installing software enhancements, completing wire separation modifications, conducting pilot training and accomplishing thorough de-preservation activities that will ensure the aircraft are ready for service.
“These actions do not allow the MAX to return immediately to the skies. The FAA must also approve 737 MAX pilot training programme revisions for each US airline operating the MAX and will retain its authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates or airworthiness for all new 737 MAX aircraft manufactured since the FAA issued the grounding order. Furthermore, airlines that have parked their MAX aircraft must take required maintenance steps to prepare them to fly again,” added the FAA.
The natural question – after the longest grounding of an aircraft in modern US history – is whether the aircraft is safe. According to a Bloomberg article published in Daily Maverick the answer is yes, because the FAA-proposed fixes go beyond the specifics of the software that was blamed for the catastrophe.
“This software – called the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) – was originally added to the MAX to guard against an aerodynamic stall, but it instead repeatedly forced the planes to nosedive and set off a cacophony of alerts that overwhelmed pilots. Boeing will now make the system dependent on two sensors, rather than just one, to avoid erroneous reading. MCAS also will only activate once, reducing the amount of power the system can exert on the nose of the plane. The FAA has also backed a broader overhaul of the plane’s computers to improve reliability and separate bundles of electrical wiring that had the potential to short circuit,” wrote Bloomberg.
While a number of US airlines have already said they expect to start flying the MAX again soon, Brian Kitchin, of the Comair Rescue Consortium, told Travel News that Comair would not be operating the Boeing MAX as part of its ramp-up phase.
Comair, which took ownership of the first B737 MAX in South Africa at the end of February 2019, had to ground the aircraft almost immediately after receiving it and then deferred the delivery of a second aircraft after the Ethiopian crash.
Travel Market Report says American Airlines is planning a return to service for the MAX by the end of this year. United Airlines and Southwest are also reportedly expected to start operating the jets by the first quarter of 2021.