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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.

Airbus Versus Boeing

United Airlines Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 on final approach at San Francisco.

For the first time since 2011, Airbus has outperformed Boeing.

As we all know, there are two main plane makers in the world today making the lions share of commercial passenger-carrying aircraft. Boeing and Airbus are more or less a duopoly in the skies and have been keenly fighting for market share for a number of years now. They’ve both had wins and setbacks from which they have managed to recover with lessons learned.

Now that 2019 is behind us, a year that many are quite glad to have in the rearview mirror, it might be interesting to see how it washed up for Boeing and Airbus.

It’s not hard to see which aircraft model was the most prolific in 2019. The Airbus A320 family of aircraft has been selling well for Airbus and in a year where the Boeing 737 MAX was not compromised by groundings, that aircraft should have been delivered in the same numbers.

Let’s not forget the turn around in the fate of the Super Jumbo Airbus A380. That aircraft was set to pick up the reins from the Queen of the Skies, the much loved Boeing 747, and take us into the new Millenium in style. What Airbus failed to recognise was that the advent of much better engine technology. This technology paved the way for the giant twin-engined jets to service those long overwater routes previously reserved for the four-engined airliners. This was bad news for Airbus as the sales of the A380 fell well short of the break-even point where the aircraft sales had covered the development and manufacturing costs. As if on a signal, different airlines cancelled their A380 orders or at least reduced them. The huge Emirates order will keep manufacturing going for a limited time until all orders of the type dry up.

It is not all bad news for Airbus, however. Where some of the A380 orders were cancelled, they were replaced by orders for the new A350 XWB. Even Emirates converted some of its A380 orders to A350 XWB orders. Obviously a cheaper option for airliners, and one that will continue to be developed into the future.

The smaller A320 family of aircraft have a higher production rate than the other models which is obvious from the graphic. These aircraft are produced in multiple locations to try and keep up with demand. Airbus is also ramping up the A220 production. The A220 was, of course, bought from Bombardier of Canada.

So, mixed results for Airbus. What of Boeing?

Boeing’s story is perhaps much more dramatic and has been very much in focus throughout 2019. As we know, the first event that gave a clue that all was not well with Boeing’s new 737 MAX happened in October 2018, when Lion Air flight 610 crashed into the sea shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia. The investigation started to show there was a problem with the system that prevents the aircraft from going into a stall. The heightened likelihood of a stall was anticipated due to a larger engine on this model needing to be placed further in front of the main wing to allow it to be raised higher to achieve ground clearance.

The Boeing delivery figures for 2019 show clearly the gap left by the delivery of the smallest model, the 737. The MAX deliveries should have been around the 570 aircraft mark, not 121 as shown above. The larger aircraft such as the 787 and 777 have longer production times and so fewer are produced compared to the 737.

Tragically, this assessment was further proven correct when a second 737 MAX, Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, crashed in similar circumstances after departure from Addis Ababa in March 2019. Not even six months after Lion Air. The aviation world immediately responded by grounding the Boeing 737 MAX pending further investigation and rectification of any issues that were found. Boeing continued to produce the 737 MAX in the hope that the grounding would be lifted and deliveries could commence. As 2019 wore on it started becoming obvious that the MAX was not going to allowed back in the air anytime soon. The production was slowed from 52 to 42 aircraft per month, and on 14 March 2019, the first cancellation of a MAX order was received. It was from Garuda Indonesia for 49 aircraft. There have been a number of others and as we write in January 2020, Boeing has suspended production. To be honest, I believe they simply don’t have the space to park any more.

There are around 400 aircraft ready to be delivered. If and when the all-clear is given and dependant on what remedial work needs to be done on completed airframes to make them airworthy, Boeing will schedule the delivery of those aircraft while firing up the production lines again.

United Airlines Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 on final approach at San Francisco
Here we see a summary of the 737 MAX order book from first orders back in 2011. Everything is progressing quite well, with a bit of lull in 2015 and 2016. First deliveries start rolling out the door in 2017 and 2018 shows a good solid performance. In 2019 we see the wheels fall off. We have negative orders due to cancellations by Garuda Indonesia and others and deliveries all but dry up as well.

There have obviously been some bad decisions taken down at Boeing. We can only hope that they can learn from their mistakes and turn this into a win for all. Faith needs to be restored with the airlines and of course their customers, the travelling public. There is a common saying used by many, “if it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going”. They need to make people feel like that again to get back in the saddle.

So Boeing versus Airbus? Clearly it has been a win for Airbus in 2019. The European planemaker came late to the party, compared to Boeing and its long history, but there is no doubt that they are a worthy adversary in the big airliner market.