June, 2020 - Modern Airliners

When will the Boeing 737 MAX fly again?

Boeing 737 MAX.

It is well over a year now since Boeing’s latest version of their very successful 737 model was grounded in March 2019. This much-anticipated version of the type brought all sorts of technological improvements that brought it into line with the 787 and 777 models. As we know, the 737 MAX’s introduction was marred by the two tragic accidents causing the loss of 346 lives. First Lion Air flight 610 out of Jakarta on 29 October 2018 and then Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 on 10 March 2019 out of Addis Ababa. Airlines and aviation authorities around the world were quick to ground the aircraft type. However, the F.A.A. (Federal Aviation Authority (US)) cleared the aircraft as airworthy on the 11th of March 2019. This decision was reversed on the 13th of March as the similarities of the accident causes started to come to light.

So why did Boeing and the F.A.A. drop the ball so badly?

So why did Boeing and the F.A.A. drop the ball so badly? There have been many reports about a toxic work environment at Boeing going back many years. It seems that blame can be apportioned to both Boeing and the F.A.A. according to a House report which was released after a year-long investigation in March 2020. The investigation found in evidence which included texts on Boeing employee’s phones, that Boeing misled the F.A.A. with regard to the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System) which was found to have been the blame for both accidents. For the F.A.A.’s part, the report found that the FAA “failed in its duty” and that its review of the troubled plane was “grossly insufficient.” The report also labelled Boeing as having a “culture of concealment”. This is quite damning when your industry is 100% about safety.

Boeing 737 MAX 8 PK-LQH of Lion Air
A Boeing 737 MAX of Lion Air, similar to that which was lost on 29 October 2018.

So what is so different about the MAX that this latest 737 is suddenly struggling with airworthiness certification?

As passenger jets go, the 737 is at the small end of the scale, designed to fly short to medium-haul with relatively few passengers. Small and compact, it was designed when pure jet engines were in use and not the chunkier bypass engines of today. Those first jet engines were long and thin and sat comfortably under the wing with enough ground clearance to spare. Economic and environmental pressures led to the introduction of cleaner and quieter bypass engines which by their nature are chunkier for want of a better word. The jet in a bypass engine sits in the middle at the core of the engine and that is surrounded by an outer shell surrounding the core which carries air pushed through by the larger fan at the front. So full jet thrust from the core then slightly less thrust from the surrounding fan pushed air. This stops the crackling and roar which happens as a pure jet exhaust is forced out into still air, the surrounding fan air softens that.

Ethiopian Airlines ET-AVJ Boeing 737 MAX
An Ethiopian Airlines Boeing 737 MAX much like the one that crashed on 10 March 2019 finally causing the MAX to eventually be grounded.

So back to our 737. As soon as bypass engines were to be added to this aircraft it became evident that ground clearance would be an issue. There was no real option to increase the landing gear length as there was the problem of where it should go during flight. You may have noticed when you got on your 737 Next Gen or just observed them at the airport, the engine nacelles when viewed from the front are not quite round. There is a bit of flattening of the circle at the bottom. This is for ground clearance.

The 737 MAX took things to the next level. CFM International, a leading jet engine maker for airliners had designed the Leap 1 engine series and these were to be the engine of choice for the 737 MAX. The Leap 1B produced economic savings, a big drawcard for airlines, as well as noise reduction which enable to aircraft to fly friendly to airports where this is important. The drawback is the larger circumference of the whole engine unit. To accommodate this, Boeing extended the nose landing gear by 8 inches over previous models as well as beefing up the main landing gear and support structures to take the extra weight of the bigger engines. The change that is important, however, is the position of the new engines. The nose gear extension on its own was not enough to maintain the required 17-inch ground clearance beneath the engines. To do this Boeing moved the engines further forward of the wing leading edge and higher. Problem solved, but perhaps with some trade-offs that would come and bite later.

the MAX could inadvertently be put into a stall situation

Boeing realised that in certain phases of flight the MAX could inadvertently be put into a stall situation. Enter the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System). This system was designed to prevent the pilot from being able to put the aircraft into a stall situation, a safety fallback system. It seems that Boeing believed this system would resolve any design-driven compromises and that pilots who were certified of previous 737 models could transition seamlessly onto the new MAX. Boeing was keen to avoid expensive pilot retraining.

So Boeing had a “culture of concealment” and the F.A.A. “failed in its duty”. It sounds like a perfect storm for both and let’s face it, we’re not out of it yet. Boeing for its part is still being investigated by various government agencies on financial and other matters. For the F.A.A.’s part, its chief, Steve Dickson, will testify before the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday 17 June 2020 at 10 a.m. ET. According to the committee, Dickson will answer questions about “issues associated with the design, development, certification, and operation” of the Boeing 737 Max. The hearing will also look at ways to reform the certification process.

It is events such as those unfortunate accidents that serve to expose wrongdoing and negligence among those who we trust to protect our safety. Cutting corners or simply being asleep at the wheel because this is all business as usual just doesn’t cut it in this industry. How long will it take for Boeing to gain back confidence from the travelling public? Luckily people have short memories. I would hope that what comes out of this is more vigilant F.A.A., to protect our interests and a more respectable Boeing. With such a long distinguished history in aviation, let’s not drop the ball now.

So when will the MAX fly again? Well, Boeing was hoping for January 2020, but this did not eventuate. In fact, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg was let go by the board in December 2019 for trying to rush the MAX back into the air. Boeing continued to produce the MAX and only stopped when they ran out of storage space, including their staff car park. Around March they seemed to be preparing to ramp up again but Boeing has alerted to its suppliers to stop production once again. It seems the MAX will definitely miss the Northern Hemisphere summer. It seems a case of watch this space at the moment.

When will airlines start flying again?

Covid19 aircraft cabin

When can I go and visit family? When can I have a much needed holiday that I so surely deserve after this lock-down?

These are questions most people must be asking after the craziness of the last few months. Being locked inside for weeks on end, people are desperate for some semblance of what they remember as “normality” to return. Often the only thing that keeps us going is the vision of that overseas holiday we are working so hard for. Warm sunny days on some exotic beach to recharge us for the next onslaught of domestic bliss.

Unsurprisingly, the airlines are every bit as keen as their customers to get full planes back in the air. That is those airlines that have been able to survive the Covid19 suspension of travel. When we restart airline schedules, I’m sure we will not be seeing all players return to the table, and some that do will somehow be different from the way they started the year.

So many things need to line up before travel can start again, and different parts of the world will treat it differently. For example, here in Australia, we still have travel restrictions between the states. So we can go and holiday now within our own state, but no further. There has been talk of a travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia, two countries which have been very successful in their dealing with Covid19. The travel bubble basically acknowledges that both country’s approach to Covid19 is similar enough to forge a trust between the two to enable free travel back and forth. The hold up for this bubble to start is the fact that Australia’s states are still not open to each other, much less another country.

Let’s face it, how long can you bleed money?

So with many countries now getting on top of Covid19, what can we expect? Well, many airlines are seeing this as a sign that things may be ready to start swinging back into action. Let’s face it, how long can you bleed money before you need to get back to business? Not that it is up to the airlines. Countries need to agree with each other as to the terms of letting flights commence between them and within their own borders. Nobody wants to start a second wave of the pandemic when we have come so far.

Covid19 airport temperature check
A Covid19 airport temperature check. Checking before you board to ensure you don’t bring the virus onto the plane to being checked on arrival at the destination to ensure you don’t bring the virus into the country will be the new normal. We though post 9/11 travel was bad! I can see us having health passports in addition to our normal passport in the future.

QANTAS, here in Australia, are anticipating they will reach 40 capacity compared to pre-pandemic activity for domestic travel by the end of July 2020. In the U.S., American Airlines anticipates flying 55% of its domestic schedule compared to the same period in 2019. In May, American only flew 20% of that schedule. Bear in mind that this is the Northern Hemisphere summer, so demand is high. In both cases, the announcements have helped the share price of these airlines as confidence in that market starts to turn around. This trend is fairly common across the board.

So is all this activity a sign that things are going back to normal? To be honest, no. Covid19 is still out there and is by no means a lesser threat than it was a few months ago. We don’t have a vaccination yet, so it could rear its ugly head again at any time. The enablement of travel to restart again depends very much on us being able to manage things like social distancing and minimising contact with others as much as possible during the whole process. This includes the airport and inside the aircraft cabin, taking all the usual precautions we employ on the ground.

This outlines how aircraft cabin air is different

Some airlines have been controlling which seats are allocated so as to create spaces between passengers. Whether it be not allocating the middle seat in a set of three, or putting a single passenger in each row, other than families which can sit together. Whilst the aircraft cabin is an enclosed space like any other form of transport like a bus or train, IATA has released a Briefing Paper which is worth looking at if you are indenting to fly. This outlines how aircraft cabin air is different from those trains and buses. In short, aircraft cabins use HEPA(High-Efficiency Particulate Air) filters to ensure the air you breath is free from better than 99% of airborne bacteria and viruses. The airflow is a 50/50 mix between outside air and recycled internal air which gives on average 15 to 20 cubic feet of air per minute per passenger. The personal air from above can also ensure you are only getting that clean air.

Delta Air Lines focuses on cleaning procedures for their fleet in response to the COVID-19 virus at the Delta TechOps facility in Atlanta, Ga..
Delta Air Lines focuses on cleaning procedures for their fleet in response to the COVID-19 virus at the Delta TechOps facility in Atlanta, Ga..

Akbar Al Baker, has reportedly told Boeing and Airbus….

It is great to see that our favourite airlines may survive to take us back into the wild blue yonder at some future time. Starting some services as described above will surely help, but we’re not out of the woods by a long shot. Airlines still have many aircraft sitting on the ground, not earning money, in fact costing money. In many cases, no doubt, the income from the start-up of the limited services will come nowhere near covering the costs, but simply slow down the money bleed. As a flow-on effect, those airlines have orders for new aircraft from the likes of Boeing, Airbus and others, which are coming due for delivery and payment. This presents a bit of a balancing act in the relationship between the airlines and manufacturers. Many, if not all, airlines are seeking a delay to their aircraft deliveries and payments as obviously cash is tight. Also, schedules don’t actually require any new aircraft to be added right now and there is certainly no market for used older aircraft either. For their part, Boeing and Airbus also need cash flow to keep their businesses going, so it is a fine line between holding airlines to their commitments and giving leniency and time extensions until the market improves. Outspoken CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, has reportedly told Boeing and Airbus if they don’t come to the party and give time extensions, his airline will no longer buy aircraft from them.

So interesting times ahead. How do you feel about travel beginning again, or have you already travelled in a Covid19 world? We’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below. So many are still living in their isolation bubble, so news of what really happens out in the real world is a nice departure from what might be fake news. Fly safe everyone.