Boeing 737 Max May Stay Grounded Into Summer

Jan 21, 2020
Originally published on January 22, 2020 7:08 am

Boeing's troubled 737 Max airplane will now remain grounded from passenger service until at least June or July, which is months later than the company had previously suggested.

And that means airlines will likely cancel Max flights through the busy summer travel season.

The three U.S. airlines that fly the 737 Max, American, Southwest, and United, had already removed the planes from their flight schedules into early June.

In a statement, Boeing confirms that it has told its customer airlines and its manufacturing suppliers that "we are currently estimating that the ungrounding of the 737 MAX will begin during mid-2020." Industry sources tell NPR that means June or July at the earliest and ultimately, the FAA and other aviation regulators around the world will determine when the 737 Max is safe to fly passengers again, which could be months later.

The 737 Max has been grounded by regulators since last March, after the second of two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people. Investigators primarily blame a faulty automated flight control system on the Max for the crashes. The company has been working on software fixes for that and other problems ever since.

Until recently, Boeing had often suggested the fixes were almost ready to be submitted to regulators and approval was imminent. But in December, FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson pushed back against Boeing's then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg for suggesting repeatedly that the Max would be recertified before the end of the year, saying the regulatory agency would not be pressured into granting quick approval.

Dickson summoned Muilenburg to Washington for a hastily called meeting, in which the FAA chief told the company's chief executive that "Boeing continues to pursue a return-to-service schedule that is not realistic." In a statement, the FAA said Dickson was also concerned with "the perception that some of Boeing's public statements have been designed to force FAA into taking quicker action."

During the meeting, Dickson "made clear that FAA's certification requirements must be 100% complete before return to service." And "he reminded Mr. Muilenburg that FAA controls the review process" and will take all the time it needs to get the 737 Max review right.

Shortly after the FAA's rebuke, Muilenburg was forced out and replaced by Boeing board member and former General Electric executive David Calhoun as CEO.

In a statement today, the FAA says "the agency is following a thorough, deliberate process to verify that all proposed modifications to the Boeing 737 MAX meet the highest certification standards. We continue to work with other safety regulators to review Boeing's work as the company conducts the required safety assessments and addresses all issues that arise during testing. We have set no timeframe for when the work will be completed."

Boeing's efforts to fix the MCAS flight control system on the MAX have been plagued by setback after setback.

In pushing back the anticipated date of the plane's return to service, new CEO Calhoun appears to be trying to set a new tone. The new estimate "is informed by our experience to date with the certification process," Boeing says in its statement.

The new estimate of when the plane may finally be approved to return to service "is informed by our experience to date with the certification process," Boeing says in its statement. "It is subject to our ongoing attempts to address known schedule risks and further developments that may arise in connection with the certification process. It also accounts for the rigorous scrutiny that regulatory authorities are rightly applying at every step of their review of the 737 MAX's flight control system," including pilot training requirements.

"Returning the MAX safely to service is our number one priority, and we are confident that will happen," Boeing's statement continues. "We acknowledge and regret the continued difficulties that the grounding of the 737 MAX has presented to our customers, our regulators, our suppliers, and the flying public."

The 737 Max crashes and subsequent crisis at the airplane manufacturer has been taken a toll on morale among Boeing employees and retirees in the Seattle area, where most of the company's planes are built.

CEO Calhoun is in Seattle this week, meeting with Boeing employees and for the first time, he plans to take questions from reporters in a conference call Wednesday.

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Boeing and its regulators at the FAA keep finding new problems with the 737 Max. So the planes will not fly this summer, which of course is the busiest travel season of the year. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Boeing is once again pushing back its estimate of when the 737 Max will be approved by regulators to return to service to mid-2020. That likely means June or July at the earliest. But ultimately, the FAA and other global regulators will determine when the 737 Max is safe to fly passengers again, and that could take months longer. The planes have already been grounded since last March after the second of two crashes that killed 346 people.

JOSEPH SCHWIETERMAN: The longer these planes are on the ground, the bigger the problem becomes.

SCHAPER: Joe Schwieterman is an aviation expert at Chicago's DePaul University. He says airlines need to plan their flight schedules months in advance. Now not only can they not use the 737 Max planes they already had, but they're not getting new ones that they ordered to replace older, less fuel-efficient jets and to expand routes.

SCHWIETERMAN: That means lost profits. It's going to drive up fares. And plus, the planes that have been sitting on the ground a while - the maintenance needs of those planes and so forth worsen, you know, as they sit mothballed. It's a real logistical nightmare right now.

SCHAPER: So even when the Max is cleared to fly again, it will take airlines several weeks to get the planes ready to fly and pilots retrained. Boeing has agreed to pay billions to compensate airlines for their losses from the Max grounding, as the problems with the plane are not just limited to the automated flight control system that investigators point to as a primary cause of the crashes.

FAA test pilots discovered a second flight control problem last summer. A more recently discovered software glitch sometimes prevents flight deck computers from turning on, and some bundles of electrical wiring were found to be too close together and could short-circuit and cause a crash.

PAUL HUDSON: Clearly, Boeing has been less than forthcoming with problems.

SCHAPER: Paul Hudson is with the airline passenger advocacy group FlyersRights.org, and he blames Boeing leadership for prioritizing profits and shareholder value over safety.

HUDSON: They have turned their corporation into a cash cow for dividends and, essentially, for stock manipulation. Those chickens have now come home to roost.

SCHAPER: Boeing's new CEO Dave Calhoun is in Seattle this week trying to boost the sagging morale of airplane manufacturing employees, and he'll hold a conference call today to answer reporters' questions - the first time any Boeing official has done that since the Max crisis began.

David Schaper, NPR News.

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