Boeing 737 MAX crisis: a difficult return to the skies (Part V)

Karol Ciesluk

This article was first published on AeroTime News on October 4, 2019. Information added at the bottom of the article.

If you have missed the fourth part of the timeline, check it out here:

Back in 2011, time and money were of the essence for Boeing. As Airbus came out with the A320neo, Boeing’s management made the decision to act fast and, for competitive reasons, simplistically. Instead of developing a new narrow-body that would have competed with the re-engined Airbus A320, the American manufacturer decided to follow in Airbus‘ footsteps and also slap on new engines on their star, the 737. Yet times changed, as safety requirements and systems did so as well. But for the 737 MAX to stay competitive, Boeing decided to introduce minimal changes to the aircraft.

The A320 made its commercial debut in 1988 and with it, brought a revolution inside the cockpit – fly-by-wire systems and a side-stick changed the way pilots were controlling aircraft. The Boeing 737, while a very robust and reliable airframe, was old. It made its commercial debut in 1968 with Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) , making it a 43-year-old frame in 2011. Bobby, as Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) nicknamed the 737 in 1968, was already re-engined three times before the MAX. The newest 737 brought exceptionally great operating economics for airlines, yet in terms of technology inside the cockpit – it had an empty hand. That bluff of cards seemingly paid off, at least in the short-term.

Two years later after the Boeing 737 MAX first made its commercial debut with Malindo Air, the industry is debating when the aircraft will return to service after two fatal crashes claimed the lives of 346 people. The short-term gamble, which made the MAX the “fastest-selling airplane in Boeing history”, backfired. Where money was saved prior to commercial entry, more money was lost after the type was forced to sit on the ground.

But together with time, the company has changed, at least according to Boeing. The manufacturer has established a “permanent Aerospace safety Committee”, whose main responsibility will be to overlook the “safe design, development, manufacture, production, operation, maintenance and delivery” of any future Boeing products.

Yet the biggest problems are with a product that the company has already released.

Asking for exceptions

Documents, obtained by The Seattle Times, showcased that Boeing argued against some of the requirements about critical safety alerts on board, asking the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make an exception to some of its rules. The requirements, outlined as Flightcrew alerting, amongst many, mandated that:

1.     Alerts must abide a prioritization hierarchy. At the bottom of the list are advisory alerts – they help “increase flight crew awareness“ under certain conditions.

2.     Warning and caution alerts must, coupled with two more requirements, “provide a timely attention getting cues”, communicated via “at least two different senses”, combining “aural, visual or tactile indications”.

3.     The alert function must “minimize the effects of false and nuisance alerts” and they must prevent signals that are “inappropriate or unnecessary”.

4.     The aforementioned alert function must also provide a way for the crew to suppress the alert, which can “interfere with the flightcrew’s ability to safely operate the airplane”. If the alert is suppressed, “there must be a clear and unmistakable” announcement that the alert “has been suppressed”.

These are the four rules, which the FAA granted exceptions for the 737 MAX. In any other case, these requirements apply to every single new jet that seeks certification by the U.S. based aviation authority.

Boeing presumably did not want to spend the sum, which is cited to be more than $10 billion, on the design changes to oblige to the requirements. The FAA signed off the exceptions in April 2014, saving Boeing a big chunk of money. Manufacturer of the 737 thought that in a worst-case scenario the pilots would be able to react to MCAS and make appropriate changes in time. However, as the Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET 302 and Lion Air JT610 preliminary reports showcased, pilots were startled by several alerts after the infamous MCAS had triggered.

Since, the alert systems onboard the MAX have been heavily criticized, including a publicly available NTSB report.

Cost-saving measures are the recurring theme of the MAX. A whistleblower reported that he attempted to persuade the company‘s management to include a safety feature into the newest 737, called synthetic airspeed, which made its debut with the Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Reportedly, the system‘s installation on the 737 MAX was rejected due to “cost and potential (pilot) training impact“. Boeing did not want to lose their competitive edge, as any additional pilot training would have a very negative impact on the MAX‘s attractiveness to customers. 

The A320neo had almost an identical airframe with its older version, so an Airbus A320ceo pilot has to attend “a computer-based training program to be able to fly the A320neo“, according to BAA Training, a company specializing in aviation training services. The difference between the two narrow-body versions does not warrant the operator to “roll out a full training program“.

Logistical nightmare

As time goes on, Boeing’s losses are continuing to increase. On July 24, 2019, the company reported its biggest quarterly loss ever, as the 737 MAX crisis alone cost the company $5.6 billion. But the Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Boeing, Dennis Muilenburg, remained positive. During the 7th annual Morgan Stanley Laguna Conference on September 11, 2019, he said that the manufacturer “is making good, solid progress” for the 737 MAX to return to service. While a scenario where the aircraft is approved for commercial flights on a country-to-country basis is a possibility, as several authorities including the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) have stated that they will certify the plane themselves, for customers that have ordered the 737 MAX this is just the icing on the very problematic cake.

Boeing is still hopeful for a return to service within Q4 of 2019, which the company defines as “the day the FAA clears the plane for flight”. While the manufacturer is already preparing for the un-grounding and is looking for extra personnel in Moses Lake, Washington (United States), for airlines that day remains a far and distant land.

One European airline, which planned to receive three Boeing 737 MAX aircraft by the end of 2019, is hopeful to operate the type only in Q3 of 2020. There are two main arising issues for an airline that will have to take up the delivery of produced, but parked aircraft.

Firstly, maintenance slots. This is especially problematic if an airline outsources its maintenance procedures due to one reason or another. Hangar slots, when the airline can deliver an aircraft to a Maintenance Repair Organization (MRO), are in limited supply. Maintenance checks are pre-planned, as every aircraft has a certain time frame when they have to be checked in order for it to be able to fly again. For the 737, there are four checks – A, B, C and D. The C and D checks are the biggest, as they take up to 20 days for the 737 MAX and come every three and nine years, respectively, according to Boeing’s By Design site. As these slots are pre-booked, they come in limited supply on short notice, thus even if the MAX gets the stamp of approval in the near future, some airlines will struggle to even get a spot to re-check the aircraft.

This leads to the second problem – because the aircraft sat parked, they will need to undergo expensive and time-consuming checks for any faults. Boeing states that “procedures established to preserve” an aircraft when it is parked and to restore it to an airworthy condition are “extensive and lengthy, but necessary to ensure” that the plane is in proper condition. A leaked 737-200 maintenance manual indicates at least 131 actions in order for the aircraft to be in “serviceable condition” if it was parked for longer than seven days, which can take “between two to four weeks”. The process can drag on further, according to one MRO engineer, who wished to remain anonymous. Together with various examinations, “every single document and status report about the aircraft has to be re-checked”, further adding complexity to the process.

Thus, Boeing’s alleged Scrooge McDuck money-saving tactics when developing the 737 MAX backfired massively – not only the company will endure massive financial losses due to the lack of sales throughout 2019, compensations to the victims’ families and aircraft operators but the incalculable damage to its brand and the aviation industry as a whole will remain ingrained in the company‘s history.

And a new problem was created by the company itself. As the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, Stephen Dickson stated publicly that the FAA won’t certify the MAX to fly before 2020, slipping the re-certification timeline further, Boeing had no other choice but to suspend the production of the aircraft. It has promised that out of the 12,000 people working on the production line won’t be affected. Reportedly, Boeing still has heaps of steps to complete before the type is certified, prompting questions whether we will see the groundings continue for more than a year since March 2019.

Furthermore, the company’s Chief Executive Officer, President and former chairman, Dennis Muilenburg, has lost his place at the company on December 23, 2019, as Boeing tries to restore its public image. However, replacing the long-term worker at the company with an executive who only joined the manufacturer’s board room in 2009 might not produce the required cultural shift that the company needs in order to get back on its feet.


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