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737 MAX Recertification Process: When can airlines fly the MAX again?

FAA issues Airworthiness Directive

The 737 MAX recertification process is moving forward but very slowly. To get the MAX-model flown by airlines again there are still several items that has to be approved by the FAA.

In spite of a constant optimistic attitude, frequent media reporting on estimated dates of return, and wishful thinking from the airlines there is absolutely no indication of when the airplane will be certified back to service.

Status of 737 MAX return to service

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing completed the required initial re-certification flight tests on the troubled 737 MAX about a month ago. The conclusion of the test flights brought the plane a step closer to FAA approval to return to service. But, not close enough to light a cigar.

The FAA yesterday issued an Airworthiness Directive for four design-changes for the 737 MAX. MAX Operators will have 45 days to comment on the Directive.

More 737 MAX test flights are scheduled

Although the FAA passed the first and crucial initial series of test flights more flights are scheduled to continue assessing the safety of software fixes and testing of the flight-control systems.

737 MAX Operational Readiness Review Phase

This phase of flying is called the “operational readiness review”. This phase of a series of additional flights will be conducted with FAA pilots as well as airline pilots from around the globe.

737 MAX FAA recertification flight testing is complete. YouTube/Reuters.

Three days of initial flight testing

The 737 MAX test flights were completed during three days of flying. Total test flight time came 7 hours and 37 minutes (7:37).

  • 2 hours of flying on June 29,
  • 4 hours of flying on June 30, and
  • 1 hour and 37 minutes of flying on July 1.

During the three days of flight testing, FAA and Boeing pilots and engineers have worked together. They evaluated Boeing’s proposed changes to the automated flight control system on the MAX.

The faulty flight control system was found to be the cause of two fatal MAX-crashes. The crashes grounded the entire fleet of MAXs worldwide.

What has been done to the MCAS?

The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software has been upgraded to ensure it isn’t controlled by only a single sensor. With the upgrade, the MCAS system cannot be activated repeatedly either, as it did before.

Boeing has modified the entire flight control software. The MAX’s systems now use both flight control computers instead of only one. This was done by requiring input from dual sensors on each side of the plane.

737 max recertification process, MCAS
MCAS. Sources: Boeing/Mentourpilot/Bloomberg.

FAA MAX flight testing is complete, but key tasks remain

The 737 MAX recertification process now continues. An extensive list of things must be done before the plane can receive clearance to go into passenger service again.

Next, the FAA is going to spend weeks evaluating the data it gathered during the test-flights. The agency wants to evaluate if the MAX’s systems perform as expected. Results must comply with all FAA safety regulations.

What are the remaining steps in the 737 max recertification process?

Here are the remaining items the FAA needs to complete and approve before the MAX can return to service:

  • FAA-review of Boeing’s final design documentation. Furthermore, a Technical Advisory Board of experts from a dozen international air safety regulators and NASA have a say. They need to approve and sign off on the findings.
  • At the same time, the FAA will be working with regulators from Europe, Canada, and Brazil. The group will be focusing on the minimum pilot training requirements and 737 MAX flight manual updates. The process involves issuing a draft report, which will be open for public comments. The final report will then state the required minimum training standards for MAX pilots.

737 MAX pilot training requirements

Pilot training in a full flight simulator on MAX procedures is now expected to be required by the FAA. This requirement was long resisted by Boeing.

But first, the FAA will have to approve the MAX pilot training programs at each airline. Once individual airlines have the approval to proceed they will run thousands of pilots through the 737 MAX-specific simulator training.

737 MAX Airworthiness Directive

The FAA must issue an Airworthiness Directive. The Directive will advise airlines on which upgrades they must install on the MAX aircraft before flying again.

Requirements for not yet delivered 737 MAX aircraft

Several hundred MAXs have been built since the grounding, but they have not yet been delivered to the buyers. These MAX aircraft must undergo individual airplane reviews by the FAA before any aircraft is allowed to leave the factory.

There is a total order for about 5,000 of the aircraft. However, some airlines have canceled their orders, such as Norwegian Air, with 92 recent MAX-cancelations.

Lifting the MAX grounding order

The FAA will then lift the MAX grounding order, conditioned upon completion of the required Airworthiness Directive work.

737 MAX back in service

Will the MAX immediately go into service after completing all the steps described above?

No, it is most likely going to be another couple of months before U.S. airlines can put the MAX into service.

That should put the timeframe for when airlines will be flying the 737 MAX again towards the last quarter of 2020. This barring any further hiccups.

737 max recertification process, 737 in Havana, Cuba
Boeing 737 MAX deplaning passengers in Havana, Cuba, prior to the grounding of the jet. First Officer Carl, for CaptainJetson.com.

Boeing’s 737 MAX FAQ Information Site

Boeing has answers to frequently asked questions about its MAX here.

Potential further MAX delays

Even then we should anticipate further complicating factors that can affect the suitability of placing the MAX back into full service.

No one knows how long the coronavirus pandemic will keep its grip on airplanes flying again full-scale. If there is a demand for flying the MAX should do well.

Perhaps the most asked question:

Will passengers trust that the MAX is safe to fly again? Or, have the accidents created a lasting opinion among passengers that it’s an airplane to stay clear of?

Time will tell.

What do you think about the efficient 737 MAX recertification process now happening? Would you fly the MAX when it returns to service? You can contact us here.

Featured Image: 737 inflight, beautiful Mount Rainier, close to Seattle, Washington on the horizon. Photo: Capt. Slim, for CaptainJetson.com.

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