Congress, the FAA, and Boeing: The Future of the 737 MAX
O’Neill and Associates SVP Peter Goelz is the former Managing Director of the NTSB.
Tragedy struck on October 29, 2018 when Lion Air flight 610 crashed over Indonesia. The international community mourned the death of 189 passengers and crew members, and Boeing insisted that the crash was due to pilot error, not any design flaw in the newly certified 737 MAX aircraft. When Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed on March 10, 2019, killing 157, it became clear that there was a serious problem with the plane. The MCAS software system, designed to silently keep the aircraft flying on course, was repeatedly activating, causing both planes to nosedive.
The plane was finally grounded in the United States on March 13, 2019. Over time, it was revealed that not only had Boeing not included the MCAS system in the plane’s operations manual, it had never even informed the FAA or pilots about the new software system. The FAA had delegated much of the plane’s certification process to Boeing itself and was ignorant about many of the plane’s new features, MCAS chief among them.
Since March, Boeing and the FAA have endured the wrath of Congress, as congressional committees have dragged government officials and company executives to sit on their panels and answer painstaking questions. Family members of those lost on the two flights have given stirring and emotional testimonies deriding those who allowed the faulty 737 MAX to ever take to the skies.
To make matters worse, the FAA was without a permanent Administrator at the time of the crashes and through most of the investigations, until Steve Dickson was sworn in on August 12, 2019. Dickson took the helm of the agency at troubling time, as the flying public and industry stakeholders are examining the FAA’s actions under a microscope to ensure the 737 MAX is only restored to service when it is assuredly safe.
As the months stretch on, Boeing’s losses are piling up. In the second quarter of this year, Boeing lost $3.4 billion, the largest ever quarterly loss for the company. As Boeing engineers continue to modify the plane’s software, American, United, and Southwest Airlines have all announced they are cancelling flights on the grounded 737 MAX until March 2020, a mark that has been pushed back repeatedly in the past year.
Complicating the recertification are international regulatory bodies, chiefly the EASA (the EU’s FAA counterpart), which has driven a somewhat harder line than the FAA. Historically, international aviation regulators have accepted the decisions of the FAA, allowing FAA-certified planes to fly internationally without independent reviews by each country. That trust has been damaged by the United States regulators’ botched certification process that allowed the plane to fly in the first place and the delay in its grounding after the two crashes. The last thing Boeing wants is for the plane to return to domestic service but still be barred overseas.
While the manufacturer, airlines, and even regulators are eager to get the plane flying again, passengers, flight attendants, and pilots aren’t so sure. Lori Bassani, President of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, wrote a letter to Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg, saying, “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.” While the 737 MAX looks likely to fly again some time in early 2020, everyone involved in the process is sure to be under close scrutiny through that date, and beyond.