Boeing 737 MAX: Overcoming the Grounding Will Be Just the Beginning

With the 737 MAX being in the news almost daily, I couldn’t help but think what awaits for the type in the future. I have almost no doubt that the aircraft will return into service soon(er or later). Some estimates say it could be as early as in the first quarter of 2020.

However, I also believe that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and other regulators giving the 737 MAX the green light will be just the beginning. From there on, the type will have to regain trust of operators, crew members, and – most of all – passengers.

In this article, I outline the reasons why I believe that might turn out to be extremely challenging.

In some of the points, I compare the current 737 MAX situation to two previous fleet-wide groundings ordered by the FAA – those of the DC-10 and 787, so let’s start by briefly looking at those.

Boeing 737 MAX: Overcoming the Grounding Will Be Just the Beginning
Getting back in the air will be just the beginning for the 737 MAX.

The Three FAA Fleet-Wide Groundings

To date, the FAA ordered three fleet-wide groundings – i.e. the temporary suspension of operations of a certain aircraft type. Two of those, the DC-10 grounding and the 737 MAX grounding took place after fatal accidents.

Grounding #1: Douglas DC-10

Just a year after being introduced into service in 1971, the DC-10’s reputation suffered a hit when American Airlines flight 96 lost its aft cargo door on June 12, 1972, resulting in an explosive decompression.

The pilots, in spite of their ability to control the aircraft being severely hampered, managed to perform an emergency landing. All 67 passengers and crew members onboard survived.

Following the accident, a flawed design of the aircraft’s outward-opening cargo door was determined to be the culprit. Some airlines made voluntary modifications to their aircraft’s doors, however, an airworthiness directive that would mandate those changes was not issued.

That is, it wasn’t issued until another similar – this time deadly – accident took place in 1974. On March 3, Turkish Airlines flight 981 suffered explosive decompression caused by an improperly locked cargo door. The DC-10 crashed in France, killing all 346 people onboard.

It wasn’t the cargo door problem that caused FAA’s first ever fleet-wide grounding, though.

Instead, it was American Airlines flight 191 which, on May 25, 1979, crashed immediately after departing Chicago O’hare. The aircraft’s left wing engine and pylon separated from the wing, cut critical hydraulic lines as they did so, and caused the aircraft’s left wing to stall. All 271 people onboard as well as two people on the ground died in the accident.

As a result of the crash, DC-10’s type certificate was withdrawn by the FAA on June 6, 1979, grounding the type in the United States and in countries with which it had agreements in place.

The grounding didn’t last long, though, as incorrect maintenance procedures used by the airline were determined to be the cause of the accident.

The certificate was regranted just a month and a week after it was revoked, on July 13, 1979, and from there on, the DC-10 had a safety record comparable with other aircraft of the same generation. In fact, some DC-10s remain in service (albeit mostly as freighters and military aircraft) to this day.

Douglas DC-10 FAA Grounding
Douglas DC-10 was the first target of an FAA fleet-wide grounding. (Credit: San Diego Air and Space Museum Archive)

Grounding #2: Boeing 787

Less than two years after the Boeing 787 entered into service in October 2011, on January 7, 2013, a battery in a JAL 787 parked at Boston airport overheated and caught on fire. Within a couple of days, United Airlines reported that one of its 787s had problems with wiring in the same location that the fire broke out in on the JAL aircraft.

Another week later, on January 16, 2013, an ANA 787 flight from Yamaguchi to Tokyo Haneda made an emergency landing in Takamatsu. The reason: a warning indicating smoke in one of the aircraft’s electrical compartments – i.e. a problem with the aircraft’s battery.

With the two accidents which, luckily, did not result in any injuries or deaths, both ANA and JAL decided to ground their 787s on January 16, 2013. The FAA followed with an emergency airworthiness directive mandating all US-based operators of the type to ground the 787 (only United Airlines at the time) on the same day.

The 787s were allowed back in the air in the United States – contingent on undergoing modifications – in April 2013, ending the more than 100-day long, second ever FAA’s fleet-wide grounding.

Today, the 787 is – in spite of ongoing issues with the Rolls-Royce engines powering some of them and with the quality control at one of the type’s manufacturing plants – a popular aircraft both among operators as well as passengers.

Boeing 787 Grounding
Unlike with the other two groundings, the Boeing 787 grounding didn’t happen after a deadly crash.

Grounding #3: Boeing 737 MAX

Finally, there is the Boeing 737 MAX grounding, the main topic of this article.

The aircraft entered into service in May 2017 and operated thousands of flights safely before the first 737 MAX accident took place. On October 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 was setting its course for Depati Amir airport in Indonesia when, just 13 minutes after take-off, it crashed into the Java Sea.

All 189 passengers and crew members onboard were killed in the accident, in an aircraft that was delivered just two months prior.

On March 10, 2019, another 737 MAX crashed. This time, the accident took place six minutes after take-off from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia. None of the 157 passengers and crew members onboard the flight headed to Nairobi in Kenya survived.

The day after the second crash, China, Indonesia, and Mongolia grounded the 737 MAX. The FAA, on the other hand, issued a statement saying that there was no evidence to justify grounding the type.

On March 12, 2019, more countries – including Singapore, Turkey, India, and Australia – grounded the type. 737 MAX operations were suspended within the European Union as well. The United States and Canada, on the other hand, were still standing by the aircraft type.

Finally, on March 13, 2019, President Donald Trump announced that the FAA would be ordering the grounding of the 737 MAX. Canada, New Zealand, Mexico, and other countries followed that day. Over the next couple of days, some more countries suspended 737 MAX operations.

As you most likely know, the groundings are in effect to this day – more than six months after they were first ordered. While the aircraft might be let back in the air next spring, that is all dependent on how the various investigations progress.

Even assuming the aircraft will be deemed airworthy again soon, though, that will be just the beginning of 737 MAX’s return.

Air China 737 MAX 8
China was one of the first countries to ground the 737 MAX.

A Challenging Road to Rebuilding Trust Lies Ahead

Once the FAA and other regulators around the world allow the 737 MAX back in the air, the aircraft should be safer. In fact, with all the scrutiny it is going through, chances are it will become one of the safest aircraft in the world.

However, people – whether airline managers, crews, or passengers – are emotional beings, and so, people do not necessarily equal safe with trustworthy.

Because of that – and for a number of different reasons that I talk about below – I believe the 737 MAX will have a very difficult time, much more so than the DC-10 or the 787 did, regaining trust even once it is back in service.

#1: On the Surface, It’s an “Intangible” Software Issue

Computerization is, for most part, good. After all, it’s one of the things responsible for making aircraft safer, easier to operate, and more efficient in the first place. At the same time, though, computerization makes it difficult for people “not in the know” to visualize how things work or where a problem lies.

Just imagine a car thirty years ago and a car today. While in the past you could tinker with a car’s engine relatively easily, today, it’s more difficult if not impossible since everything goes through a computer rather than being purely mechanical.

The DC-10 and 787 issues were, at least on the surface, “tangible.” Whether it’s an issue with the cargo door, the maintenance procedures, or the batteries, it is fairly easy – even for a layman – to imagine (even if in an incorrect way) what the problem could be like and how one could fix it.

On the other hand, one of the things that gets reported about the most in regards to the 737 MAX accidents is the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

The MCAS is, according to Dennis Muilenburg, the CEO of Boeing, “a system that’s designed to provide handling qualities for the pilot that meet pilot preferences.” It’s a piece of software designed to adjust the handling characteristics of the 737 MAX to mimic those of the previous generation Boeing 737.

The “intangibility” of the software issue, is what gives many people the feel that the aircraft “went rogue.” Being just lines of code, the MCAS problem is harder for people to visualize compared to a door blowing off or a burning battery.

The inability to visualize the source of the problem is also what will make it harder for the general public to trust that the problem has been fixed. Harder to trust that the 737 MAX won’t “go rogue” again.

Boeing 737 MAX MCAS
Unlike an issue with a cargo door, the MCAS issue is “intangible.”

#2: Both the FAA and Boeing Have Lost Public Trust

The other thing standing in the way of the flying public trusting the 737 MAX is their increasingly lacking trust in the type’s manufacturer, Boeing, as well as in the organization responsible for certifying it, the FAA.

With the two accidents – and the investigations and reports in media that followed it – potential “loopholes” in the FAA’s certification process have been exposed.

The 737 MAX was certified under the less stringent “Changed Product Rule” rather than as a brand new aircraft type. While that is not uncommon as it allows manufacturer’s to speed up the certification process – and to do it cheaper – the rule’s effectiveness and impact on safety have been put into question.

On top of that, due to the lack of funding and resources, the FAA has been delegating more and more of the certification process to the manufacturers. In other words, Boeing has become increasingly more responsible for overseeing itself – a clear conflict of interests when decisions about trade-offs between safety and costs have to be made.

A fair share of news that put the trustworthiness of Boeing into question have been reported as well. Perhaps the most notable of those are instant messages between Mark Forkner, the 737 MAX’s former chief test pilot and another Boeing pilot that surfaced in October 2019.

The communication between the two pilots included messages from Forkner that, among other things, said “so I basically lied to the regulators (unknowingly).”

It was also revealed that in an email to an FAA staffer sent before the type entered into service, in November 2016, Forkner said: “I’m doing a bunch of traveling… Simulator validations, Jedi-mind tricking regulators into accepting the training that I got accepted by the FAA.”

A message sent by a different Boeing employee revealed concerns about the 737 assembly line. “Fatigued employees make mistakes. Frankly, right now all my internal warning bells are going off, and for the first time in my life, I’m sorry to say that I’m hesitant about putting my family on a Boeing airplane,” it said.

With the messages indicating that – in one way or another – Boeing as well as the FAA were aware of the potential issues with the 737 MAX, and that even some Boeing’s employees are losing trust in their company, it will be hard for the manufacturer and the regulator to regain trust of operators and the general public. 

A recent letter from the Association of Professional Flight Attendants reading “the 28,000 flight attendants working for American Airlines refuse to walk onto a plane that may not be safe and are calling for the highest possible safety standards to avoid another tragedy,” is just one example of that.

#3: Information Spreads Fast, Bad News Even Faster

While part of how trustworthy something appears is determined by the other party’s actions, a large part of it is also dependent on the information that is circulated – as well as on the ease of access to said information.

Back when the DC-10 was grounded, there were no smartphones or even the Internet. Instead, people relied on the radio, TV, newspapers, and the people they knew to get their news. Today, we have the Internet – including social media – in addition to all of the sources that existed back in the 1970s.

Even though on a much smaller scale, the level of information sharing and consumption has increased even between the 787 groundings in 2013 and today. Just as an example, a report by Pew Research Center suggests that the smartphone penetration in the United States was just 53% in July 2013, and has grown to as much as 81% in February 2019.

That presents a challenge for Boeing since even once the aircraft is back in the air, the stream of reports about the accidents, investigations, and congressional hearings among other things is likely to continue.

Unfortunately, since negative news tend to be more “newsworthy” than positive ones, I think the chances are high that they will overshadow the news of the 737 MAX returning into service – or that the return into service will be spinned in a negative way.

#4: “Now Everyone Can Fly”

For this point, I’ll borrow AirAsia’s tagline, “Now Everyone Can Fly.” While that’s great as it allows more people to visit more places than ever, it’s also one of the major hurdles that the 737 MAX might have to face once it is cleared to fly again.

When the Douglas DC-10 was introduced, the portion of the population that flew with any sort of frequency was considerably smaller than it is today.

According to the World Bank, in 1979, the year the DC-10 was grounded, airlines transported about 650 million passengers. In 2013, the year the 787 was grounded, it was about 3.0 billion passengers. In 2018, it was about 4.2 billion passengers, more than six times as many as in 1979 and considerably more than in 2013.

Because of that growth, there are more people than ever that can relate to the issues surrounding the 737 MAX more than ever. There are, of course, more passengers. However, perhaps more importantly, there are also many more family members, friends, and other people the passengers know.

I believe this will be one of the main reasons it will be difficult for the 737 MAX issues to “fade away.” It’s likely that remarks like “I’m not booking a flight on the 737 MAX,” “I hope you’re not flying on the 737 MAX,” or “you shouldn’t fly on the 737 MAX” will persist for a long time.

#5: The Scale of the Groundings Is Unprecedented

Lastly – and perhaps most importantly – the scale of the 737 MAX groundings is unprecedented.

In total, only 386 DC-10s (excluding the military KC-10 version) were built between 1968 and 1989. Of those, almost 300 were already built when the accident that grounded the aircraft happened.

On the other hand, 387 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft were delivered to date. In addition to that, Boeing’s order book for the type stands at 4,543 unfulfilled orders of which, estimates say, more than 300 were already produced and are waiting to be delivered.

In addition to that, while both the DC-10 and 787 are wide-body aircraft used by relatively few operators, the 737 MAX is one of the most popular aircraft types in the world and the fastest selling (at least until the accidents) Boeing aircraft ever.

It’s an aircraft that is set to replace the 737NG, world’s most popular series of narrow-bodies.

As such, rather than affecting relatively few long-haul operators, the 737 MAX grounding affects dozens and dozens of airlines all over the world – ranging from the European low-cost Ryanair through Air Canada and Fiji Airways all the way to the largest 737 operator, Southwest Airlines.

Because of the scale, all of the damage that the FAA’s and Boeing’s “goodwill” suffered will need to be fixed on a much larger scale than during the previous two fleet-wide groundings.

Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX
Southwest Airlines is the world’s largest 737 operator and was the launch customer of the 737 MAX 8. (Credit: Boeing)

Summary

With the 737 MAX grounding having cost Boeing billions of dollars, there is little doubt that the manufacturer wants to get the aircraft flying as soon as possible. At the same time, the regulators are doing their best to ensure that a similar string of accidents never happens again.

As for the general flying public, they care very little about what aircraft type they fly on. Instead they care about whether they believe – and the word “believe” is very important here – the aircraft they are about to fly on is safe.

Considering that both Boeing and the FAA have received a lot of negative press lately, changing the belief that the 737 MAX is not a safe aircraft might turn out to be difficult.

At the same time, over a long enough period of time – assuming the 737 MAX will return to the skies and fly safely for a while – most customers will forget. Especially those that will be faced with a choice of flying on the 737 MAX for, let’s say, $100 or on a different aircraft type for $150.

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