There is a shortage of aircraft. Demand outstrips free seats and all those 737 MAX planes will be going back into service. So, it may help to know what’s being done and, more importantly, what mistakes were made to create the issues in the first place. Two crashes later, Boeing and the whole aviation industry is learning lessons on what not to do, starting with one big lesson: take your time, don’t look for what’s wrong, make sure everything is right.
Back in early 2010 Boeing planned to make a clean-sheet plane to deal with better fuel efficiency demanded by the airlines, especially their biggest customer American Airlines (AA). Since Airbus – their only competitor – didn’t have anything in planning Boeing thought they had time. “Not if we’re convinced a new airplane will be coming at or near the end of the decade,” then-CEO Jim McNerney told Aviation Week in mid-2010. “I think our customers will wait for us.” But then Airbus made a blind statement they planned to launch the 320neo before 2020 and promptly got 1,000 orders before a single rivet was driven home. And to make matters worse, AA ordered planes from Airbus... only agreeing to split the order with Boeing if Boeing quickly had a comparable fuel-efficient plane. Boeing freaked, scrapped the plans for a new plane and set about modifying the 737 to take the more fuel efficient LEAP engines from GE. Even GE were caught off guard, “Up until a few days before the American Airlines deal, Boeing was still saying they were going to do an all-new airplane,” said GE’s Chaker Chahrour in 2013. “It was amazing how, literally within a few days, things had turned around.”
Boeing then needed to integrate the LEAP engines into the old design. They extended the nose gear 8 in., cantilevering the engine forward and upward of the wing leading edge and added larger nacelles—which then created more lift at high angles of attack (AOA). Boeing’s solution: Expand the 737’s speed trim system (STS) by adding the MCAS—just two lines of software code that would automatically adjust the horizontal stabilizer. Part of the problem here is that Boeing used only computer modeling and wind-tunnel data, and no limit was put on the number of times the MCAS could activate; it would trigger whenever data fed to it determined that it was needed. Input faulty data (bad AOA vane sensors), and the thing would repeat nose down again and again. In flight testing Boeing refined the system to rely only on those AOA pitot vanes sensing airspeed. What failed on the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airways (ET) crashes? Speculation is that a bird strike took out the ET AOA vanes causing the MCAS to take over no matter what the pilots did.
Why didn’t pilots know about the MCAS at all? Since the system was so-called transparent to all 737 MAX pilots (meaning they could know it was working), Boeing decided not to include information on the MCAS in flight training or flight crew operations’ manuals... and there was almost no training on what to do if the sensors failed. How to turn the thing off? 2 crashes later pilots are already in re-training, in simulators, and in flight testing.
Meantime there are 385 of 737 MAXs parked around the world. Cost to Boeing so far? About $4,900,000,000. And Boeing is building more of them and stockpiling them with plans to re-fly the plane this Fall. But they have said that all production of MAXs could be temporarily halted if the return-to-flight timeline drags on into 2020. And this Fall, if all goes well? In addition to routine work required to get any parked aircraft flying again, Boeing’s upgrades must be installed—a process the company says will take a few hours per airframe. Each aircraft will then be flight-tested—a process that will take days. And each MAX pilot must be trained, in simulators and in the air—a process that can take weeks.
So, here’s the big question: Why don’t airlines simply scrap the planes and buy something else? Current MAX customers don’t have a lot of options. They cannot simply switch orders to Airbus because the A320 family is largely sold out through 2022 and the 385 existing MAX planes are promised to be ready to fly again. For the money people running the airlines, that’s too big an incentive especially because the MAX is 15% more fuel efficient than the regular 737 fleet even if the public is less than confident in the cobbled up 737 MAX. Signs to watch out for? Your airline booking won’t tell you the aircraft type you’re booked on.