Operated by a majority of airlines and enjoyed by millions of passengers worldwide the Boeing 737 has revolutionized air travel. The newest model of the 737 – the all new 737 MAX designed with latest technologies in airframe technology, powerplants and avionics for efficiency of operation and further improving the flight experience for passengers the all new 737 MAX is head-to-head in competition with the Airbus A320neo.
But following the tragic events of 10 March 2019 the second air incident involving the Boeing 737 MAX – what does the future hold for Boeing’s newest aircraft the 737 MAX now that attention has turned to focus on the route cause of the accident and the safe operation of the aircraft.
We take a look at events to date for the aircraft – and what this means for orders of the 737 MAX BBJ (Boeing Business jet).
Following the loss of two aircraft to-date. the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max fleet is expected to cause some, but little global impact to air travel disruption in the short term.
Boeing took the lead in grounding its 737 MAX aircraft, with the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] following suit.
In real-world terms this meant the grounding of 371 aircraft.
Why did Boeing ground the aircraft?
As a safety precaution the aircraft manufacturer has grounded its global fleet of 737 MAX aircraft following global media attention and after new evidence emerged about a fatal crash involving the jet.
The airline that suffered the loss of the second aircraft which devastatingly resulted in loss of all 157 passengers and crew, tweeted that “An Ethiopian delegation led by Accident Investigation Bureau has flown the Flight Data Recorder and Cockpit Voice Recorder to Paris, France for investigation.”
The FAA had previously held out on any suspension of operation of the aircraft type while many countries banned the aircraft.
What has the FAA discovered?
The FAA has a team investigating the disaster at the Ethiopian Airlines crash site working with the National Transportation Safety Board.
Dan Elwell, acting administrator at the FAA, said on Wednesday: “It became clear to all parties that the track of the Ethiopian Airlines [flight] was very close and behaved very similarly to the Lion Air flight.”
“The evidence we found on the ground made it even more likely the flight path was very close to Lion Air’s”.
Until Wednesday following the Sunday accident, the FAA position was that a review had showed “no systemic performance issues” and that there was no basis for grounding the aircraft.
With other aviation authorities around the world deciding to ground the 737 Max, the FAA – which provides the safety certification for the new aircraft – was under intense pressure to fall into line.
The United States President
President Donald Trump initially announced that the FAA would be making an emergency order following “new information and physical evidence that we’ve received from the site and from other locations and through a couple of other complaints”.
What has Boeing said?
Boeing, the US plane manufacturer, said that it “continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 Max”.
However, it added that after consultation with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board it had decided to ground the flights “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft’s safety”.
Dennis Muilenburg, president, chief executive and chairman of Boeing: “We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”
What happened since then?
While the UK Civil Aviation Authority, for example, said its actions were simply precautionary, the FAA has gone further.
The US regulator, which is involved in the investigation, says it has made its decision [to ground the aircraft type] as a result of new evidence collected at the site and analysed today – as well as satellite data.
That will have set alarm bells ringing at Boeing’s headquarters in Chicago.
Since the accident, analysts have focused on similarities between Sunday’s tragedy, and another crash involving a 737 Max off Indonesia last October.
The focus is currently on mean Boeing’s MCAS anti-stall system, already implicated as a possible cause in the Indonesia crash, which may also have played a role in the latest disaster. This is an open question awaiting answer.
Pilot feedback about the 737 MAX
Pilots in the US had complained late last year about problems controlling the Boeing 737 Max 8 during take-off.
They reported difficulties similar to those that contributed to the fatal Lion Air crash in Indonesia in October.
The Ethiopian Airlines plane crashed minutes into its flight.
Flightradar24, an air traffic monitor, said the plane’s “vertical speed was unstable after take-off”.
Pilots flying last November reported engaging autopilot only for the aircraft’s nose to pitch lower, prompting the warning system to exclaim: “Don’t sink! Don’t sink!” according to documents researched and reported by other news sites including the UK’s BBC.
In November, two US pilots reported separate incidents involving the 737 Max’s automatic anti-stalling system.
The feature, new to the 737 Max family, is designed to keep the plane from stalling.
The system prevents the aircraft from pointing upwards at too high an angle, where it could lose its lift.
However, according to filings with the US Aviation Safety Reporting System, which pilots use to disclose information anonymously, it appeared to force the nose down.
In both cases, pilots were forced to intervene to stop the plane from descending.
After the Lion Air crash, Boeing issued a bulletin on what to do regarding erroneous readings from the sensor, which sends out information about what angle a plane is flying at.
The Boeing MCAS anti-stall system
As of the beginning of April 2019, the aircraft manufacturer [Boeing] is reporting a delay to the safety fix of the MCAS anti-stall system.
Boeing has warned it will take longer than expected to overhaul the anti-stall system in its 737 MAX aircraft.
Both Boeing and the FAA have said the deployment of a software update for the airline jets’ Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), to improve the component, will be delayed as engineers continue to work on it.
According to reports, the combination of software and hardware is supposed to activate when the plane may stall. Unfortunately, if bad sensor data is fed into it, the software will repeatedly try to override the pilots’ controls and force the plane down. The pilots have about 40 seconds to kill the safety component before it overrides, simulations later discovered.
A warning indicator that all is not well with the sensor data was an optional extra that it is believed that budget airlines tended to skip.
We hear that a faulty angle-of-attack sensor in the aircraft’s nose emitted readings that convinced the on-board computer that the aircraft was about to stall, causing it to push the plane’s nose lower to recover the situation. MCAS is supposed to try this just a few times before giving up, but each time the pilots intervened to take back control, the system would reset its counter, meaning each time the pilots pulled up, MCAS would try again to nose down, eventually driving the aircraft into the sea or ground.
What concerns some in the aviation field is that MCAS is governed by a single sensor, rather than multiple sensors that would provide redundancy and cross checking. Having one sensor fail is not uncommon, and the result should not involve the thing flying itself into the ground, which is why Boeing has to join up its software to more sensors.
Before any release of any updates to the aircraft, the regulator, the FAA, will need to approve the solution package including a full review of the 737 MAX Flight Control System to ensure that Boeing has identified and appropriately addressed all pertinent issues.
What does this mean to private and business aviation owners and buyers?
With two aircraft already delivered to completion centers, and orders for 21 BBJ 737 MAX aircraft – private and business aviation buyers are also in suspense awaiting a fix to the 737 MAX aircraft.
With a price tag starting at $74 million, buyers will be expecting they are to be communicated to throughout the process, particularly as Boeings rival Airbus has suffered no such issues with their competitor aircraft the ACJ320neo.
Should buyers wish to, they are free to sell their spot in the queue to someone else if they decide they no longer want to take delivery of a 737 MAX.
However, given that a proposed fix is reportedly weeks away [as of the beginning of April 2019], and that the FAA will require full proving of any proposed solution prior release to Boeing’s customers, the answer to the question Boeing vs. Airbus isn’t far away.
Boeing has always cared for its customers and Boeing Business Jets, the aircraft manufacturer’s private aviation arm will no-doubt communicating with completion centers and customers over progress to resolving the current issue.
What many airlines and private clients worldwide will be doing is monitoring life extension of any existing aircraft in operation awaiting to be replaced with receipt of their new 737 MAX.
For private clients any delay needs to be synced with completion center slots, many of which will be signed up, or memorandum of understandings in place for those.
Boeing will get through this just fine, says Mark Halsor, an aircraft appraiser and retired 747 pilot. Still, it’s not unthinkable that a BBJ Max buyer could simply walk away from multiple millions of dollars already sunk into their purchase.
“This is not your typical ‘corporate jet,’” Halsor says. “These are people who don’t really care about the economics of it.”
US Senate investigation has launched
As of the April 03, 2019, new Senate investigation has launched, and details of a federal grand jury have emerged as the latest in a series of probes looking into how the Boeing 737 MAX was certified.
Senate Commerce Chairman Roger Wicker wrote a letter Tuesday to FAA acting Administrator Daniel Elwell informing him that the committee was opening an investigation into the safety inspectors’ training following whistleblower filed reports that have raise questions about whether Federal Aviation Administration inspectors who reviewed the Boeing 737 MAX for certification were properly trained.
According the CNN reporting, the Mississippi Republican documented that “information obtained from whistleblowers and a review of documents obtained by the committee, the FAA may have been notified about these deficiencies as early as August 2018.”
“Furthermore, the committee is led to believe that an FAA investigation into
these allegations may have been completed recently.”
“Such potential lack of training and certification” of FAA inspectors “may have led to an improper evaluation” of the computerized stabilization system that has come under scrutiny following the October Lion Air crash.
That Senate investigation is one of several into the FAA and Boeing following two fatal MAX accidents since October.
Calvin Scovel, the Transportation Department inspector general announced a wide-ranging review of the FAA’s certification of the aircraft, as well as the certification authority the agency delegates to companies like Boeing.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao also is forming a commission to review the FAA’s aircraft certification process.
U.S. Justice Department prosecutors have issued multiple subpoenas as part of a grand jury criminal investigation, including one to a former Boeing employee requesting all “communications, including drafts, related to the Boeing 737 Max.”
Definitions and Frequently Asked Questions:
What is MCAS?
MCAS, or Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, is a flight control law implemented on the 737 MAX to improve aircraft handling characteristics and decrease pitch-up tendency at elevated angles of attack.
Why has Boeing installed MCAS on the 737 MAX?
The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) flight control law was designed and certified for the 737 MAX to enhance the pitch stability of the airplane—so that it feels and flies like other 737s.
When is MCAS activated?
MCAS only activates in the rare instance when three conditions occur:
- The airplane nose approaches a higher-than-usual angle.
- The pilot is manually flying up.
- The airplane flaps are up.
How will MCAs change with the software update?
Boeing has developed an MCAS software update to provide additional layers of protection if the AOA sensors provide erroneous data. The additional layers of protection include:
- Flight control system will now compare inputs from both AOA sensors. If the sensors disagree by 5.5 degrees or more with the flaps retracted, MCAS will not activate. An indicator on the flight deck display will alert the pilots.
- If MCAS is activated in non-normal conditions, it will only provide one input for each elevated AOA event. There are no known or envisioned failure conditions where MCAS will provide multiple inputs.
- MCAS can never command more stabilizer input than can be counteracted by the flight crew pulling back on the column. The pilots will continue to always have the ability to override MCAS and manually control the airplane.
These updates reduce the crew’s workload in non-normal flight situations and prevents erroneous data from causing MCAS activation.
How many Boeing 737 MAX aircraft have been delivered to customers?
Boeing has delivered more than 370 MAXs to 47 customers (through February 2019), 2 aircraft delivered to completion centers of Boeing Business Jet customers.
How many additional 737 MAX aircraft are on order?
About 5,000 737 MAX airplanes have been ordered by 107 commercial customers, with orders for 21 BBJ 737 MAX aircraft.
How and why did Boeing decide to develop the 737 MAX?
Our development efforts always start with listening to our customers to understand their needs and requirements. Based on customer feedback and market data, the 737 MAX was the clear choice to succeed the Next-Generation 737. Over a six-year period, our team worked through a disciplined methodical development process the culminated with a robust test program that validated the airplane’s safety and performance.
Who is the FAA?
The Federal Aviation Administration is an operating mode of the U.S. Department of Transportation
Link to the Boeing 737 MAX software update page: