In what has been described as a comprehensive and safety review process that took 20 months in all to complete, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) of the U.S., on November 18, signed an order that clears the way for the aircraft, the Boeing 737 MAX, to return to passenger service.
The step follows the global grounding of the latest iteration of Boeing’s best selling narrowbody jet after two crashes in five months that claimed 346 lives. The 13-minute flight of Indonesia’s Lion Air Flight 610, on October 29, 2018, that ended in the Java Sea, and that of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, on March 10, 2019, airborne for six minutes before a hard impact in the countryside in Ethiopia, had pointed to clues of serious safety issues having overwhelmed the flight crew.
As questions swirled thick and fast around the fate of the fourth generation version of the popular plane which promises economic efficiency as its key selling point, and the image of its manufacturer, the over 100-year-old aerospace company, Boeing, regulators, in collaborative and independent efforts, scrambled to find remedies to the core issues involving the craft’s design, certification and operation processes. In the process, there have been quiet and far-reaching changes to the aviation ecosystem, especially to regulation, safety practices and quality in the U.S.
What are the modifications that have been made to get the MAX back in the skies after the grounding estimated to have cost $20 billion? To begin with, the crucial pilot training programme, specifically for the 737 MAX is populated with the recommendations of a Joint Operations Evaluation Board (JOEB), which comprises civil aviation authorities from the U.S., Brazil, Canada, and the EU. The FAA has released an Airworthiness Directive with specific and crucial design changes that must be made before the twin-engine jet returns to service, a Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community (CANIC) and MAX training requirements.
The FAA has to approve the MAX pilot training programme revisions for every American airline operating the type. Importantly, the FAA says it retains the authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates of airworthiness for all new 737 MAX airliners built since the grounding order. Also, it adds, MAX aircraft parked since then have to undergo maintenance checks, including for foreign object debris.
Revisions in software
The major revisions are in the software, to the plane’s Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, which will now have readings from two Angle of Attack (AoA) sensors. An alarm will be standard to warn pilots of flight data variations. Pilot training will be rigorous, for AOA malfunctions, with multiple flight-deck alerts during unusual conditions. Wiring bundles are to be sorted out to eliminate the danger of a short circuit in certain conditions, and deemed a crash risk factor.
The process of a safety review in the U.S., one that has been of global collaboration, will now translate into validation in various countries and regions. Europe, Canada and Brazil are expected to make a decision soon, though it could take longer in China. SpiceJet, India’s sole MAX operator, has 13 aircraft on the ground out of an estimated order of 205 planes. It has been reported that India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) will carry out its own valuations before re-certifying the aircraft. In a statement, a Boeing official said: “Boeing is placing a 737 MAX simulator in India to provide increased training support in the region.” However, Capt. Mohan Ranganathan, a senior aviation safety expert, has a word of caution: “In the overseeing of the MAX training, it is important that the DGCA person from the Flight Standards Division is a qualified 737 MAX pilot. It is very important that the DGCA shall not allow any shortcuts in training.”
In his remarks in September, after his test flight on a revamped 737 MAX, FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson said, “I like what I saw [during the flight].” The flying machine was designed for a market where airlines needed new planes and when fuel prices were high. But much has changed. The hard part now is whether passengers will indeed be convinced of the safety changes in the backdrop of a COVID-19 world that has sapped travel demand.