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As a safety report faults Boeing and the FAA, it’s still unclear when the 737 Max will fly again – CNET

3,700 min read

After two deadly crashes of its 737 Max 8 that killed 346 people, Boeing is facing massive scrutiny over one of its newest and most critical aircraft models. The airliner remains grounded around the world, and Congress, the FBI and the Trump administration have called for an inquiry into the FAA’s certification process.

The developments are a huge blow to Boeing, which has thousands of 737 Max orders on its books. The official causes of the crashes, which appear to be similar, are still under study. But so far, investigation teams in Indonesia and Ethiopia are focusing on faulty sensors and a flight control system designed to push the nose down in the air. An Oct. 11 report from an international safety panel also found that Boeing and the FAA need to make changes to pilot response times, certification and communication procedures. 

Boeing says it has completed the necessary update for review by the FAA. But as of now, the agency has not said when that review will happen or when the plane could carry passengers again. Boeing has temporarily stopped production of the plane until it flies again. Until the Max is back in the air, here’s everything else we know:

What happened in the two crashes?

In the first crash on Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 dove in the Java Sea 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 189 people. The flight crew made a distress call shortly before losing control. That aircraft was almost brand-new, having arrived at Lion Air three months earlier. 

The second crash occurred on March 10, when Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 departed Addis Ababa Bole International Airport bound for Nairobi, Kenya. Just after takeoff, the pilot radioed a distress call and was given immediate clearance to return and land. But before the crew could make it back, the aircraft crashed 40 miles from the airport at 8:44 a.m., six minutes after it left the runway. Aboard were 149 passengers and eight crew members representing more than 30 nationalities. The aircraft involved was only four months old. 

boeing-737-max-9-pas-1

The 737 Max 9, shown here at the 2016 Paris Air Show, is a larger version of the Max 8, but with the same piloting system that’s under investigation.

Kent German/CNET

What is the Boeing 737 Max 8?

One of Boeing’s newest airliners, the 737 Max 8 made its first flight on Jan. 29, 2016, and entered passenger service with Malaysia’s (now defunct) Malindo Air on May 22, 2017. Seating between 162 and 210 passengers, depending on the configuration, it’s popular on shorter routes, but also has the range (3,550 nautical miles or about 4,085 miles) to fly transatlantic and between the mainland US and Hawaii.

The design of the Max 8 is based on the Boeing 737, an aircraft series that has been in service since 1968. As a whole, the 737 family is the best-selling airliner in history. At any given time, thousands of some version of it are airborne around the world and some airlines, like Southwest and Ryanair, have all-737 fleets. If you’ve flown even occasionally, you’ve most likely flown on a 737.

What’s different about the Max 8?

Compared with previous 737 versions, the Max 8 has bigger, more powerful and more efficient CFM LEAP engines (more on those in a minute), improved aerodynamics and a redesigned cabin interior. It also can fly farther and carry more people than the previous generation of 737s, like the 737-800 and 737-900.

The 737 Max series consists of four models, of which the Max 8 is the most popular. The larger Max 9 has been flying only for a few months and the 737-10 is still in development and has yet to fly. A few airlines have ordered the smaller 737 Max 7, but Boeing has yet to complete any deliveries. (It flew for the first time in May, 2018.)

paris-airshow-onboard-boeing-787-10-737-max-36

What caused the crashes?

The complete reports haven’t been published yet. Crash investigations are tremendously complex — it takes months to evaluate the evidence and determine a probable cause. Investigators must examine the debris, study the flight recorders and, if possible, check the victims’ bodies to determine the cause of death. They also involve multiple parties including the airline, the airplane and engine manufacturers and aviation regulatory agencies.

So far, though, investigators largely have an idea about what happened. Remember those larger CFM LEAP engines? Well, because they’re bigger, and because the 737 sits so low to the ground (a deliberate design choice to let it serve small airports with limited ground equipment), Boeing moved the engines slightly forward and raised them higher under the wing. (If you place an engine too close to the ground, it can suck in debris while the plane is taxiing.) That change allowed Boeing to accommodate the engines without completely redesigning the 737 fuselage — a fuselage that hasn’t changed much in 50 years.

But the new position changed how the aircraft handled in the air, creating the potential for the nose to pitch up during flight. A pitched nose is a problem in flight — raise it too high and an aircraft can stall. To keep the nose in trim, Boeing designed software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. When a sensor on the fuselage detects that the nose is too high, MCAS automatically pushes the nose down.

boeing-737-max-all-versions

Investigators in the Lion Air crash have said that a fault in the sensor may have been feeding incorrect data to MCAS, pitching the nose down into a dive. According to the preliminary report (PDF) from the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee, the Lion Air pilots were unable to determine their true airspeed and altitude and they struggled to take control of the plane before the crash, as it oscillated for 10 minutes. Each time they pulled up from a dive, the system pushed the nose down again. (For background on MCAS, read these in-depth stories from The Air Current and The Seattle Times.) 

The report also noted that maintenance crews had replaced the faulty sensor two days before the flight and that pilots on the four flights preceding the crash reported incorrect airspeed and altitude information (a passenger likened one of those flights to a “roller coaster ride”). And like with the Lion Air crash, the sensor on the Ethiopian plane may have been damaged causing it to feed erroneous data to the MCAS system. Investigators at both crash sites have also recovered the jack screws, which manipulate the control surfaces on the horizontal stabilizer that pitch the nose up and down. Both jack screws were set to send the planes into a dive.

On April 29, during Boeing’s annual shareholders meeting in Chicago, CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the incorrect data was a common link in a chain of events that led to both crashes. It’s a link Boeing owns, he said, and one that the software update will fix.

Boeing 737-100

Would the pilots have known about the faults?

The Air Current and The New York Times reported that the Lion Air plane also lacked a warning light designed to alert pilots to the faulty sensor and that Boeing sold the light as part of an optional package of equipment. When asked about the warning light, a Boeing spokesman gave CNET the following statement on March 22:

“All Boeing airplanes are certified and delivered to the highest levels of safety consistent with industry standards. Airplanes are delivered with a baseline configuration, which includes a standard set of flight deck displays and alerts, crew procedures and training materials that meet industry safety norms and most customer requirements. Customers may choose additional options, such as alerts and indications, to customize their airplanes to support their individual operations or requirements.”

But on April 29, The Wall Street Journal reported that even for airlines that had ordered it, the warning light wasn’t operating on some Max planes that had been delivered. Then on June 7, Reps. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, and Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington, said they’d obtained information suggesting that even though the plane maker knew the safety alert wasn’t working, it decided to wait until 2020 to implement a fix. 

Boeing responded to DeFazio and Larsen in a statement sent to CNET the same day.

“The absence of the AOA Disagree alert did not adversely impact airplane safety or operation,” the statement read. “Based on the safety review, the update was scheduled for the MAX 10 rollout in 2020. We fell short in the implementation of the AoA Disagree alert and are taking steps to address these issues so they do not occur again.”

Other investigations, like a Sep. 18 report from The New York Times, said that pilot error, particularly in the Lion Air crash, may have been a factor.

Etihad 777 flight

Do we know anything else about the Ethiopian crash?

According to the preliminary report released on April 4, the flight crew initially followed Boeing’s emergency procedures to disable MCAS by cutting electrical power. For unknown reasons, though, they later turned the system back on as many as four times after they were unable to regain control under manual power. During his remarks at the April 29 shareholder meeting, Muilenburg said that in some cases pilots did not “completely” follow the procedures that Boeing had outlined to prevent a crash in the case of an MCAS malfunction.

Ethiopia’s Transport Minister said on March 18 that two crashes have “clear similarities.” Though he didn’t elaborate, satellite data released March 14 showed that the final flight track of the Ethiopian Airlines jet was similar to that of the Lion Air plane. The FAA cited that data in its grounding order.

Have any other reports been issued?

On Friday, an international flight safety panel issued a Joint Authorities Technical Review that faulted both the FAA and Boeing on several fronts. For the FAA, it said the agency needs to modernize its aircraft certification process to account for increasingly complex automated systems by ensuring that aircraft incorporate fail-safe design principles that don’t rely too heavily on pilot input. 

On Boeing’s part, the report cited the company’s “inadequate communications” to the FAA about the MCAS, inadequate pilot training and shortage of technical staff. The review was conducted by representatives from NASA, the FAA and civil aviation authorities from Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Singapore, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.

What’s the current status of the Max 8?

Most operators quickly grounded their planes in the days following the second crash. That list includes both Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air, but also AeroMexico, Aerolíneas Argentinas, GOL Linhas Aéreas (Brazil), Turkish Airlines, S7 Airlines (Russia), FlyDubai, Air Italy, Cayman Airways, Norwegian, China Eastern Airlines, Fiji Airways and Royal Air Maroc.

More than 40 countries have also banned the 737 Max from flying in their airspace. China (a huge Boeing customer and a fast-growing commercial aviation market) led the way and was joined by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, India, Oman, the European Union and Singapore, Canada initially hesitated, but soon reversed course.

Up until March 13, the FAA also declined to issue a grounding order, saying in a statement tweeted the previous day that there is “no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” That was despite a public outcry from a group of senators and two flight attendant unions. But following President Trump’s decision to ground the Max that day, the agency cited new evidence it had collected and analyzed. Trump also grounded the 737 Max 9, currently in service with United Airlines.

Older 737 models, like the 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900 don’t use the flight control system under investigation and aren’t affected. 








































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How has Boeing responded?

On Nov. 6, Boeing issued a safety warning advising 737 Max operators of the potential for a sensor failure and instructing them how to deactivate MCAS. But two days later, The Seattle Times reported that Max 8 pilots were not specifically trained on using MCAS. The reason? According to The New York Times, it was because Boeing, backed by the FAA, wanted to minimize the cost and time of certifying pilots who had already been trained on other 737 versions. An investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that several Max 8 pilots had complained about the inadequate training. 

Following the second crash, the company expressed sympathy for the victims’ families and said it was sending an investigation team. Then on March 13, the company said it supported the action the US grounding order. 

“There is no greater priority for our company and our industry,” the statement said. “We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”

As is common after a crash, Boeing has not commented on specific aspects of the investigation, but on March 11, the company said it would issue a software update that would include changes to MCAS, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.

But even that timeline is in question. The Wall Street Journal reported March 12 that an MCAS update could have come in January before the second crash. The newspaper says it was delayed, however, by the 35-day US government shutdown earlier this year.

Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing’s president, CEO and then chairman, also published a letter April 4 expressing confidence in the fundamental safety of the 737 MAX. “All who fly on it — the passengers, flight attendants and pilots, including our own families and friends — deserve our best,” he wrote. “When the MAX returns to the skies with the software changes to the MCAS function, it will be among the safest airplanes ever to fly.” Muilenburg himself has come under sharp criticism for his response to the crashes. On Friday, Oct. 11,  Boeing announced it had taken away his role as chair so that Muilenburg could “focus full time on running the company as it works to return the 737 Max safely to service.” 

On July 3, Boeing announced it will pay $100 million over several years to families of the crash victims and the communities affected by the disasters. These funds will support things like education, hardship and living expenses for impacted families and will be separate from any legal settlements.

What does this mean for the FAA?

The agency is under fire on multiple fronts over the crashes. Congress, the FBI and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao have called for investigations of the FAA’s certification process. Under scrutiny is whether Boeing employees acted on behalf of the FAA during the certification process and whether pilots flying the 737 Max should have received additional training. The Justice Department’s criminal division also is investigating the airplane, The Washington Post reported.

What has to happen before the Max can fly again?

First off, investigators need to agree on a cause for both crashes. Second, once Boeing deploys the relevant fixes, the FAA needs to certify them as safe and airlines need to implement them. There’s no telling how long that’ll take. On April 18, Muilenburg said the company was making “steady progress to certification” after 135 test flights. Then on May 16, Boeing said the update is complete and ready for evaluation by the FAA. Even with the grounding order, Boeing is permitted to conduct test flights. 

But that’s just in the United States. Aviation regulatory agencies around the world, like the European Aviation Safety Agency, also need to approve the fix before they’ll let the Max fly to the countries they oversee. Traditionally, they’ve followed the FAA’s lead on such matters, but but on Sept. 5, the EU said it will conduct independent tests of the plane before it can resume commercial flights to and within Europe. Previously the FAA and regulatory officials from Canada, Europe and Brazil agreed in principle to work together to review Boeing’s changes to the Max and restore the aircraft to service. 

There’s no word, though, on when that might happen. And there appear to be other problems with the airliner. On June 26, the FAA announced it had discovered a new computer issue that could adversely affect how fast a pilot could respond to an MCAS-related event like the ones suspected in the Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes. The same day, Boeing said it would fix the problem. 

Will pilots have to train in a simulator before they can fly the Max again?

When the Max first introduced, existing 737 pilots didn’t train on a simulator in order to be certified to fly the plane. Instead, they learned about the differences the Max brought through an hour’s worth of iPad-based training. As I mentioned earlier, that training did not include a review of the MCAS system.

After Boeing announced it was ready to deploy the MCAS software update, the FAA initially said that simulator training still wouldn’t be required. But some pilots and regulatory officials from other countries, like Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau, have disagreed with that decision. They won an influential supporter on June 19 when “Miracle on the Hudson” Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger argued before a Congressional committee that simulator training should be required before pilots take the Max back into the air. He also said the original design of MCAS was “fatally flawed and should never have been approved.”

boeing-737-max-test-flight

Are airplanes now too complicated?

On March 12, Trump tweeted that airplanes are “becoming far too complex to fly.” The reality isn’t quite that simple. Commercial airliners have used automated systems for decades (that’s what an automatic pilot is). The Lockheed L-1011, introduced in 1972, could land itself. Most airliners flying today also are “fly-by-wire,” meaning that a pilot’s commands are carried as electronic signals (rather than over hydraulic lines) to an aircraft’s control services. Flight computers also continually stabilize an aircraft during flight without input from the flight crew. Boeing and Airbus have different philosophies for this interaction, but explaining those could take a book.

So, the basic concept of MCAS is nothing new. But crews need to be properly trained to use automated systems, recognize when they may be at fault, and override them if necessary. As the initial reports have indicated, a lack of training about MCAS may have contributed to the Max 8 crashes. Airline pilots are thoroughly trained to fly an aircraft under extraordinary circumstances, but they need accurate information about factors like airspeed and altitude to be able to make quick decisions in an emergency.

Has a commercial aircraft been grounded before?

Yes. In the most recent example, the FAA grounded the Boeing 787 for three months in 2013 after a series of nonfatal battery fires. Before that, the FAA grounded the Douglas DC-10 for a month in 1979 after a crash near Chicago O’Hare Airport killed 271 people on board, plus two on the ground. (Outside of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that remains the deadliest airplane crash on US soil.) The Chicago crash was ultimately attributed to improper maintenance. The crash of a DC-10 in 1974 in France, killing 346 people, was caused by a design flaw on a cargo hold door latch.

Outside the US, both Qantas and Singapore Airlines voluntarily grounded their Airbus A380s for a couple of days after a Qantas flight from Singapore to Sydney in 2010 had an uncontained engine failure

How important is the Max series to Boeing?

Hugely important. The market for 150- to 200-seat aircraft is fiercely competitive. Airbus, Boeing’s perennial archrival, sells the similarly sized A320neo, and China is seeking customers for its new Comac C919. As of Sep. 30, Boeing had almost 5,000 firm 737 Max orders. Boeing says the 737 Max is the fastest-selling airplane in its history. But two crashes in five months is a troubling record for a plane that entered service barely two years ago, and airlines will have to reassure passengers the planes are safe. 

As of Sep. 30, Boeing has delivered 387 Max aircraft to more than 50 airlines. Currently the three largest customers (in order) are Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada. Following the second crash, airlines stopped ordering the aircraft. But on June 18 at the Paris Air Show, International Airlines Group said it would consider buying  200 737 Max 8s and 10s. Though the IAG promise may never translate to actual orders, it was still a big and unexpected boost for Boeing. But then on July 24, during the company’s second-quarter earnings call, Muilenburg said the company may temporarily shutdown Max production until it can return it to service. For the quarter, Boeing reported a $2.9 million loss due to the airliner’s grounding. 

The news has touched Boeing’s other aircraft as well. As a result of the latest crash, Boeing postponed the rollout of its newest aircraft, the 777X. Instead of the usual media event, Boeing instead held a low-key introduction for the 777X, attended only by its employees.

Originally published March 13.
Updates, March 13: Adds Trump’s order and Boeing’s statement about it. Also deleted a question about how you know if you’re booked on a 737 Max 8; March 14: Includes questions about what it’ll take for the Max to fly again and on Trump’s comments about automated aircraft; March 19: Adds questions about whether the crashes are similar and about the FAA facing new scrutiny; March 22: Includes information about Garuda Indonesia canceling its order for the 737 Max, adds info on the warning light, includes information on earlier release date for software fix; April 4: Adds a question about other findings from the Ethiopian crash. May 7: Adds information from Boeing’s annual shareholders meeting and a question about whether pilots would have known about the faulty sensors. May 17: Adds Boeing statement on completion of software fix. June 10: Expands question on whether pilots would have known about the fault. July 2: Adds question on simulator training. July 24: Adds second quarter earnings call. Oct. 13: Adds information about the Joint Authorities Technical Review.

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