On November 18, 2020, The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an order that paves the way for the Boeing 737 MAX to return to commercial service. The FAA today also published an Airworthiness Directive specifying design changes that must be made before the aircraft returns to service, issued a Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community (CANIC), and published new MAX training requirements. 

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Grounded American AIrlines 737 MAX planes. Reuters photo

Regulators in other countries and jurisdictions are expected to follow the FAA’s lead after concluding their own reviews. The FAA has collaborated with its counterparts in Canada, the European Union and Brazil on revised pilot training requirements.

The MAX was grounded worldwide in March 2019 when the FAA finally joined regulators in dozens of other countries in banning the plane after two crashes, in Indonesia and Ethiopia that claimed the lives of 346 passengers and crew.

MAX Ethiopian Crash site. It is a shame that it took two proverbial smoking holes in the ground before deficiencies were addressed.

Faulty information from a single angle of attack sensor (which is intended to warn pilots of an impending aerodynamic stall) fed bad data to the plane’s computers causing the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software to push the nose down. The pilots were unable to override or disable the system because Boeing had not prescribed adequate training on MCAS. The faulty sensor activated MCAS and put the planes into fatal nose dives from which the pilots were unable to recover.

An investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives blamed Boeing and the FAA for repeated and serious failures, including faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management in withholding critical information from pilots, and insufficient oversight by the FAA.

Even as a non-engineer, casual observer it is clear that the most important safety feature on any aircraft or spacecraft is redundancy. Stuff breaks or malfunctions. Having backups on critical systems is the best way to ensure safety. The MAX has at least two angle of attack sensors, but only one AoA sensor was tied into MCAS.

Changes ordered by the FAA include updating MCAS software to avoid erroneous activation, updating display software to alert pilots when data from sensors conflict, rerouting some internal wiring, updating the flight manual, and requiring more pilot training on MCAS including required training in advanced flight simulators.

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There will be four versions of the MAX, 7 – 10. Boeing photo.

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American Airlines Will Begin Flying the MAX on December 29, 2020

American Airlines is the airline I fly most domestically. It has already taken delivery of 24 MAXs and has incorporated MAX flights into its schedule (one daily round trip between Miami (MIA) and New York (LGA)) begining December 29 through January 4, 2021. Airplanes on the ground make no money, and the MAX is more efficient than the models it replaces.

It expects to phase more MAX flights into the schedule through January, with up to 36 departures from Miami.

Airline websites should identify the aircraft type when you book a flight. Call if you are unsure and the type of aircraft matters.

All American Boeing 737 pilots will complete the FAA-approved training, including computer-based training, classroom briefings and rigorous 737 MAX simulator training. American will complete all maintenance requirements in the Airworthiness Directive, including updating our software. 

American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest Airlines are the three U.S.- based air carriers that have already received MAX deliveries. United and Southwest plan to begin flying the MAX late in the first quarter and in the second quarter next year.

Airlines say they will allow passengers booked on MAX flights to switch if they want to. American says it will:

  • Identify 737 MAX flights when you book online or on the app
  • Notify you if there’s an aircraft swap due to a schedule change
  • Allow flexible rebooking when the aircraft changes to a 737 MAX

And if you’ve booked a flight on an American 737 MAX and would like to change, you can:

  • Rebook on the next available flight, in the same cabin, for free
  • Cancel for a travel credit on a future flight
  • Change your trip within 300 miles for no extra charge

Final Thoughts

The saga of the MAX so far has been tragic. Boeing blew it and so did the FAA. The failure to ground the plane and institute modifications after the first accident is especially disturbing and further evidences an alarming disregard for safety.

Even with the new safety measures in place, flying the MAX or any aircraft for that matter for the first couple of years after it first enters service is just a continuation of the flight-test program in the guise of commercial operations. New airplanes have the latests bells and whistles and some even smell like new cars, but as far as safety, I’ll take an aircraft that has been in service for 10 years over any of them.

It is good that airlines seem to be willing to let passengers switch flights if they are uncomfortable with the MAX. That could present interesting opportunities to book a MAX flight if it has a lower cost than the flight you prefer and then switch to the preferred flight for free.

Will you fly the MAX?