Twenty months after being grounded worldwide following two crashes that killed 346 people, the Boeing 737 MAX has been cleared to fly by the U. S. Federal Aviation Administration. Pending new training requirements for cockpit crews and maintenance updates, the aircraft could be in the air by the end of December. The only American carriers that currently have the aircraft in their fleet are Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and United Airlines.
The FAA’s approval is only valid within the United States, and regulating authorities in Canada and the European Union (EU), which still includes the UK at the present time, have said that they have not yet completed their airworthiness studies. Canadian officials have indicated that they will require additional cockpit training and maintenance inspections beyond what the FAA has stipulated.
Perhaps the bigger question is whether the flying public will be willing to fly on the aircraft when they clearly have other options available to them. All three U.S. airline operators have indicated that they will make it clear when travelers are booking MAX flights that this is the aircraft that they will be flying on, and each will be offering flexible options, upon request, to change to other flights operated by different aircraft.
The return of the 737 MAX is reminiscent of the months following the grounding of all U.S. registered wide-body DC-10s in 1979, after an American Airlines flight with 270 passengers and crew aboard crashed just after taking off from Chicago O’Hare International Airport. American’s flight was en route to Los Angeles and physically lost an engine that was later found on the airport grounds. The pilots were unable to control the aircraft and it plummeted to earth just 50 seconds after beginning its takeoff roll.
At the time of the DC-10 crash I was about two miles to the east of the site, driving just north of O’Hare. I vividly recall the massive jet black plume of smoke that burned for hours afterwards. The DC-10 grounding lasted two months and also forbade any foreign carriers from operating flights on the aircraft type either to or from the U.S. When the cause was determined to be a maintenance error by American’s workers, the aircraft was allowed to resume operations. However, it took many months for travelers to be willing to fly on the DC-10 again.
Since Boeing and the FAA have determined that the two fatal crashes were not caused by pilot error but instead, due to automation programming problems that have now been corrected, the belief is that it may take some time, but the 737 MAX will be considered safe, if not the safest airliner flying in the very near future.
While they don’t currently operate the 737 MAX, Delta Air Lines is rumored to be considering adding it to its fleet. Boeing has scores of available “white tails” fully manufacured and ready for delivery, but those orders have been cancelled by numerous airlines after the grounding of the aircraft type. The COVID19 pandemic has battered the airline industry globally, with virtually all carriers reducing their fleet size, which will make it even more difficult for Boeing to eventually find new owners for these aircraft.