American Airlines is returning the Boeing 737 MAX to service, and is allowing passengers who doubt the plane’s safety to book the next available flight at no charge. The MAX, Boeing’s top-selling plane, has been grounded for nearly two years following fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia in 2018 and 2019 that killed 346 people.
“The MAX has received more scrutiny than any aircraft in a number of years,” James E. Hall, managing partner of Hall & Associates in Washington, a transportation safety expert and former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, told Newsweek.
“The plane is back in the air, but what’s not back up is the reputation of Boeing and the FAA regarding their safety culture,” he said. “The FAA tarnished itself along with Congressional oversight, and Boeing’s action may yet be seen as criminal – we haven’t heard from the Justice Department yet.”
Investigators believe the MAX’s automated anti-stall device, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), erroneously pointed the nose of the planes down to avoid a midair stall and sent it into a fatal plunge.
In the original redesign of the 737, the new, heavier engines on the MAX were moved closer to the fuselage, and that changed the in-flight handling characteristics of the plane. As a result, the nose of the plane pitched up at times, which could lead to a dangerous mid-air stall. Boeing added the MCAS to compensate.
Safety experts and members of Congress have faulted Boeing for not adequately informing pilots of the system and how to override the MCAS in an emergency. However, the MAX flew without incident for about two years prior to the crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
Rebuilding trust in the plane may be difficult. But few passengers pay attention to the type of plane used on a flight.
American Airlines announces the type of plane used on a flight prior to boarding, and it is also available in the passenger online booking information. Those who prefer not to fly on a MAX are permitted to change their itinerary within a 300-mile radius at no extra charge if there isn’t another flight to get them to their destination, the carrier said.
“It’s a combination of dealing with people’s rational concerns and what may be irrational concerns,” Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co., an airline industry analysis and consulting company in Port Washington, New York, told Newsweek. “Perception is reality and some will have reservations about flying on the plane.”
He said the Boeing 787, recertified more than a decade ago after grounding due to a non-fatal electrical fire, has performed faultlessly since its return to commercial service.
“I think the halo will return to the 737 quicker than it did for the 787,” Mann said. “I didn’t hear a bad word from those who flew the MAX. Of course, there’s some selection bias because those who weren’t comfortable about the MAX wouldn’t have boarded the plane.”
The FAA approved the MAX’s return to commercial service last month. There are about 400 MAXs in storage. Each plane will be individually inspected before returning to service. After checking out the plane mechanically and reviewing software updates to the MCAS, each plane will undergo a test flight. The inspection could take about three days per plane.
Earlier this month, Brazil’s GOL airline resumed MAX flights, the first airline in the world to do so. United Airlines and Southwest Airlines plan to resume flights with the MAX in early 2021.
Robert Isom, president of American Airlines, boarded a flight Tuesday from Miami to New York’s LaGuardia Airport to underscore the carrier’s belief in the MAX and the FAA’s recertification process.
American Airlines isn’t alone in backing the MAX. Last week, Alaska Airlines said it plans to buy 23 more 737 Max 9s, boosting its order and options to 120 planes. When complete, Alaska Airlines will have the fifth largest MAX fleet in the U.S.
But the public may remain wary.
“I think the flying public, with a lot of justification, is taking a wait-and-see attitude on the performance and safety of the aircraft,” Hall said. ” I don’t think that’s a PR problem – it’s a real problem.”
He said there is reason for the public mistrust.
“I hope the MAX will provide long and good service worldwide,” Hall said. “The disregard of a safety culture at Boeing and the FAA was so unnecessary and so sad.”
He said he would fly on the MAX, but added that he doesn’t plan to fly anytime soon due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A 52-page report by the US Department of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General covers activities from the initial steps in certifying the MAX in January 2012 through the second crash. The report includes allegations of “undue pressure” from Boeing on those certifying the MAX’s safety.
The Inspector General also reviewed the FAA’s oversight of Boeing through Organization Designation Authorization, a program that grants manufacturers such as Boeing the authority to perform much of the work to certify its products.
Critics believe the FAA relied too heavily on Boeing engineers when certifying the MAX. But others say new technology quickly outpaces the ability of government regulators to evaluate it and therefore they must rely on company engineers.
The MCAS was “not an area of emphasis” on the MAX because Boeing characterized it as a modification of existing controls rather than as a new device, the Inspector General said. Boeing decided as early as 2013 to characterize the new system as a modification to minimize the need for additional training as part of the company’s goal to limit costs to customers, the report said.
But the MCAS became more powerful as design of the 737 MAX progressed, and FAA officials told the Inspector General they had made important decisions about the device without knowing that it has been extensively altered, the report said.
As a result, the FAA approved the 737 MAX for commercial service without a clear understanding of how the MCAS worked and the problems it could pose to pilots who weren’t fully trained in its function or how to override it in an emergency, the Inspector General concluded.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Senator Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) have drafted a bill intended to reform the way the FAA certifies new aircraft. It would empower the FAA to hire or fire workers at aircraft manufacturers involved in aircraft certification.
The federal regulatory agency also would have the authority to appoint safety advisors.