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After 20 months, the FAA has lifted the Boeing 737 grounding order

Yesterday, the Boeing 737 Max was finally cleared to fly again, after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) removed the grounding order it has had in place since March 13th, 2019, more than 20 months ago.

However, the plane won't return to the air immediately The FAA worked with several of its international counterparts to reach this consensus, which falls in line with what Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), told Bloomberg last month "Now, based on all the activities that we've undertaken during the past twenty months, and my personal experience flying the aircraft, I can tell you now that I am 100% comfortable with my family flying on the [Boeing 737 MAX]" - FAA Administrator Steve Dickson

Yesterday, the Boeing 737 Max was finally cleared to fly again, after the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) removed the grounding order it has had in place since March 13th, 2019, more than 20 months ago. However, the plane won’t return to the air immediately.

“The FAA must approve 737 MAX pilot training program revisions for each U.S. airline operating the MAX and will retain its authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates of airworthiness for all new 737 MAX aircraft manufactured since the FAA issued the grounding order,” the regulator said in the announcement. “Furthermore, airlines that have parked their MAX aircraft must take required maintenance steps to prepare them to fly again.”

In a video statement, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson gave a more personal address: 

“We’ve done everything humanly possible to make sure these types of crashes do not happen again. Now, based on all the activities that we’ve undertaken during the past twenty months, and my personal experience flying the aircraft, I can tell you now that I am 100% comfortable with my family flying on the [Boeing 737 MAX].”

The FAA worked with several of its international counterparts to reach this consensus, which falls in line with what Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), told Bloomberg last month

While there were hopes  the jet would eventually return to the skies in late 2019, this never came to pass. Given that it is Boeing’s most popular plane, the company said the grounding cost it more than $20 billion. Additionally, CNN says that lost orders for the jet during that time could make it among the most expensive mistakes ever made by a company.

According to the Associated Press (AP), Boeing sales of new planes have since plunged because of the Max crisis and the ongoing pandemic. AP also said that orders for more than 1,000 Max jets have been canceled or removed from Boeing’s backlog this year. Each plane has a sticker price of $99 million to $135 million, although airlines routinely pay less.

flydubai is the 737 Max’s second largest customer in the world, with a sizeable order backlog. 

Aviation expert and analyst Saj Ahmad pitches in

Saj Ahmad, Chief Analyst at StrategicAero Research, who has been following this story closely since day one, had to this say in a conversation with AMEinfo: 

“With the lifting of the 737 MAX restrictions by the FAA, Boeing now has the challenge of going through every 737 MAX in its inventory – as well as those already in airline fleets, to update their software and get them checked over, ready to resume flights after one of the longest groundings in memory.

FAA Chief Steve Dickson vouched that the 737 MAX would never encounter the issues that led to the two tragic accidents of the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines jets. Critical now, is the additional and revamped training for pilots who will be able to better cope with the 737 MAXs flight characteristics and be able to fly it as safely as its predecessors.

Boeing will also be working with European, Chinese, Canadian, Arabian and other international regulatory authorities so that they too can lift restrictions to allow the 737 MAX to operate all over the globe. This will not be immediate or synchronized.

Every agency will want to pore over the FAAs reasonings and examine whether they want to add further conditions that permit the fleet to re-enter service. Neither Boeing or airlines will rush this. With COVID battering airlines already, a steady, piecemeal and methodical approach to each 737 MAX getting updated and flight tested before resuming service will mean that the inventory backlog will not be cleared soon. It may take up to two years.

Even with the wonderful news of at least two COVID vaccines that will start to make their way into the public domain, air travel has irrevocably changed and so, the impetus to ‘rush’ the 737 MAX back into service is no longer there. The staged approach makes sense to ensure that airlines are comfortable with training, maintenance and operational functionality.

Its been a long hard path for all involved – however, the focus of how we got here must never be forgotten – and its because lives were lost that the 737 MAX has had to change in order to prevent this from ever happening.”

Circumstances and cause of the two crashes
The grounding order was put in place after the Boeing 737 MAX was involved in 2 deadly crashes less than 5 months apart, which saw 346 people lose their lives. 

The cause of the two tragedies was a software flaw. The Boeing 737 MAX was an upgraded version of an older model, and was rolled out much too quickly for the appropriate safety checks and inspections to be implemented, media reported at the time. 

The faulty software in question is a system called MCAS, a flight-control software that is responsible for support in the balancing of the plane’s jet nose. In both instances, the MCAS system kicked in when not needed, causing both planes to dip their nose not long after takeoff, leading to both planes crashing.  

According to CNN, Boeing supposedly made little effort to inform airlines of this newly-added flight control software: 

“Neither the Max training nor the flight manual disclosed the existence of a stabilization system known as MCAS, which was designed to operate in the background so that the Max, with larger engines and different aerodynamics, would fly similarly to the previous version.” CNN explained

To make matters worse, internal communication documents submitted to regulator revealed Boeing employees were discontent with the design of the 737 MAX, and as well as the handling of the FAA. 

“I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year,” one of the employees said in messages from 2018, apparently in reference to interactions with the Federal Aviation Administration, The New York Times reported at the time.

Now, even with the grounding order lifted, a vocal group among the families of the deceased have voiced criticism of Boeing and the place.

“The flying public should avoid the Max,” Michael Stumo, whose 24-year-old daughter died in the second crash, told the media. “Change your flight. This is still a more dangerous aircraft than other modern planes.”