Boeing 737 MAX - Modern Airliners

Boeing 737 MAX Name Change

Boeing 737-8 MAX

What’s in a name?

Plenty it seems, and if you’re in marketing you’ll know full well the power of words and names. Ask anyone in the street, well ok, I know it’s hard to find people in the street in some cities at the moment, but ask anyone, what comes to mind when you say 737 MAX. I’m sure warm fuzzy feelings will not be an answer you can expect to hear. Time perhaps for a 737 MAX name change?

Knowing this full well, what would you do if you were Boeing? The MAX name is certainly a poison chalice for them. After two tragic accidents which have led to the grounding of this latest iteration of the very successful 737 model for around 2 years now.

Boeing 737 Max-7
The Boeing 737 Max-7 is the smallest of the four variants offered under the 737 MAX banner.

The 737 MAX has been very closely scrutinised since the type was grounded along with the extensive examination of processes that led to various flaws being allowed to survive the certification process. Both Boeing and the F.A.A. have been found at fault and one can only hope that this will ensure this kind of situation will now be avoided in the future. We also hope that corrections in design and training will ensure that the 737 MAX will end up being the safe aircraft we have come to expect from the likes of Boeing. In short, this needs to be right and also seen to be right.

If you design a bad aircraft, it tends to bite….

The question remains, however, will passengers be willing to get on board a 737 MAX, even after the corrections have been made. If you design a bad car, for example, and it breaks down on the side of the road, you can kick the wheel, call someone and things will be fixed, usually. If you design a bad aircraft, it tends to bite and lots of people hear about it and get gun shy. So this is what Boeing has to contend with to regain the customer confidence.

So what will the Boeing 737 name change entail? Well, it’s not so much as a name change so much as an earlier move to the normal naming convention. If you think about the Boeing 787, which was introduced not that many years ago, it started life as the 7E7 and then the Dreamliner. Since then the aircraft has been referred to as both the 787 and the Dreamliner. The naming convention that Boeing now applies to its aircraft such as the 787, which comes in the 787-8, 787-9 and 787-10, will also be applied the 737 MAX. This is not a new idea. Boeing has referred to the various MAX models as the Boeing 737 MAX 7, or 737 MAX 8 etc..

WestJet Boeing 737 MAX-8
WestJet Boeing 737 MAX-8, one of 13 in their fleet which are currently grounded.

The move away from the MAX name has been a subtle process and Boeing has begun to the use the name 737 MAX and 737-8(7 through 10) interchangeably. This way they are transitioning away from the MAX name toward the normal naming convention of modern Boeing aircraft. This was evident in a press release recently when Polish charter airline Enter Air placed an order for two 737 MAX 8 aircraft. The release read:

Boeing and Enter Air today announced the Polish airline is expanding its commitment to the 737 family with a new order for two 737-8 airplanes plus options for two more jets.

An all-Boeing operator and Poland’s biggest charter carrier, Enter Air began operations in 2010 with a single 737 airplane. Today, the airline’s fleet includes 22 Next-Generation 737s and two 737 MAX airplanes. When the new purchase agreement is fully exercised, Enter Air’s 737 MAX fleet will rise to 10 aircraft.

“Despite the current crisis, it is important to think about the future. To that end, we have agreed to order additional 737-8 aircraft. Following the rigorous checks that the 737 MAX is undergoing, I am convinced it will be the best aircraft in the world for many years to come,” said Grzegorz Polaniecki, general director and board member, Enter Air.

So we now know that the aircraft to watch for in the future is the Boeing 737-7, 737-8, 737-9 or 737-10. I realise you would have to have arrived from Mars recently not to put 2 and 2 together, however, people have short memories and it won’t be long before they will be happily boarding their 737.

To understand the seriousness of the impact to Boeing of a failed 737 MAX, you just need to look at the order book. The MAX orders are second only to Boeing’s most popular 737 model, the 737-800. They simply cannot let the 737 MAX fail.

Safe travels.

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.