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Boeing’s desperate attempt to get the 737 MAX flying again

B737 MAX - is MCAS the only problem?

Boeing’s dogfight against time to get their 737 MAX flying again is mounting. The 737 is definitely Boeing’s best-selling plane.

One after one of their 737 model upgrades from this original 1960’s airplane body and technology propelled the airplane into a bestseller,

…until something went wrong. Very wrong.

Boeing’s latest

The U.S. firm has been working hard to get it back in the air after all the planes got grounded following two fatal crashes that occurred only five months apart.

Boeing reported on Thursday that its software fix on 737 Max has been completed, a significant step towards having the grounded jetliner fly again after the deadly crashes.

Not so fast!

But the predicaments of the jet seem far from over as it faces test and certification by both the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other aviation agencies around the world.

Airlines’ financial losses

Airlines have been missing out on hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue following the order from aviation authorities to ground the planes.

Southwest Airlines for instance, which has a total of 34 Boeing 737 MAX jets in its fleet of over 750 planes reported that the grounded airliner contributed to $200 million lost revenue during the first three months of 2019.

American Airlines which has a total of 24 737 MAX jets said on April 29th that they anticipate pretax earnings reduction this year by $350 million after canceling over 15,000 flights through August 2019.

Boeing’s financial losses

Boeing, on the other hand, had to deal with a profit drop of 21% last quarter as it had to cancel orders on 737 Max during grounding. Plus, it has to reimburse airlines that are forced to use alternate planes.

It has a backlog of about 4000 orders for the jetliner and has recently cut its production from 52 to 42 planes per month

So far, the company has spent over $1 billion on a software fix which they hope would get the jetliner in the air again. 

In addition, analysts have speculated that the US Company faces billions of dollars in compensation to families of the crash victims and airlines.

Boeing is still scrambling to persuade passengers and airlines to rally behind the Max jet. In an attempt to win the trust back Boeing is reportedly in the process of hiring major public relations firms to assist in reintroducing the jet. In April, Muilenburg stated that the pilots would act as key messengers. Dennis Muilenburg is the Chief Executive Officer of Boeing.

‘’ We think a key voice in all of this will be the pilots for our airlines and their voice is very important’’ he said.

Pilots and airlines

Interestingly, this comes as Boeing reportedly ignored a pilot’s raise of safety concerns of the 737 MAX just before the two crashes occurred.

Pilots and airlines have complained to the company for not providing information about new software after the first crash and incomplete information regarding safety features in the cockpit. Nonetheless, Muilenburg hasn’t commented on anything being wrong with the 737 MAX airliner design.

The F.A.A.

As it stands, it seems like the world’s aviation authorities have lost confidence in the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).  As evidenced in the past, when flights were grounded other regulators followed the lead of the FAA.

When FAA allowed the grounded planes to fly again, regulators around the world would let them fly with no further questioning- as it was the case when Boeing 787 was grounded due to battery problems back in 2013.

This time though getting the FAA to sign and approve the fix won’t itself solve Boeing predicaments. These are troubling news to the company as it tries to get back on track as soon as possible.

Boeing’s attempt to solutions

Boeing is awaiting regulatory approval of its software fix, a 737 Max automatic feature which is currently the focus of investigations on the two recent fatal crashes.

Questions on the process of how the plane was certified in the first place only show how hard lifting the ban really is.

The software update by Boeing focuses on the new automated system feature on the aircraft which was designed to balance the flight and prevent its nose from pitching higher due to its heavier engines that are mounted in a more forward position on the wings compared to the previous 737 versions.

The Boeing Max accidents

737 Max crash Lion Air
Computer simulation of Lion Air 737 MAX going down. Credit: Teknologi

The maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) is believed to have played a role in the crash of 737 MAX aircraft operated by Lion Air on October 2018 and by Ethiopian Airlines in March this year.

Both accidents claimed a total of 346 lives with no survivors.

The pilots of both aircraft are believed to have wrestled with the system trying to keep the airplanes on the air as the system repeatedly kept pushing the nose down.

The MCAS

737 max crash Ethiopian
Ethiopian Airlines B737 MAX wreckage. Credit: BBC

A preliminary report from Indonesian investigators stated that Lion Air 610 fatally crashed because a faulty sensor erroneously and repeatedly reported that the aircraft was stalling. This sensor triggered the MCAS, which tried to point the aircraft’s nose down so as it could accelerate with enough speed to fly safely.

Though investigations are still ongoing, the same problem is believed to have caused Ethiopia Airlines’ crash.

MCAS was designed in such a way that it takes readings from one of two angle-of-attack sensors that are meant to determine how much jet’s nose is pointing up or down relative to the oncoming airflow.

If the MCAS detects that the aircraft is pointing up at a dangerous angle, it automatically pushes the nose down in an attempt of preventing the plane from stalling.

What’s next for Boeing?

Boeing has said that it is redesigning the software in a way that the pilot will have more control and can easily turn off the system preventing it from repeatedly reengaging.

Instead of relying on data from one of the sensors, the new system will take measures from both sensors that notify the MCAS system whether the nose is pointed too high.

Boeing reported that it has already flown 207 flights comprising a total of 360 hours of flight time in 737 Max jets fitted with the new MCAS software.

The FAA’s current stand on this

The jet is, however, unlikely to be back on service for months.

On Wednesday 15th May, acting FAA administrator Daniel Elwell stated at a hearing that the Max will return to service  ‘’only when the FAA’s analysis of the factual and technical data indicates it is safe to do so’’.

Whether international counterparts to FAA will act with the same speed as U.S. regulators is a question only time can tell.

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