There’s some optimism that the 737 MAX could be back in the air in the near future. But news coming out of the United States in the last week suggests this optimism could be misplaced.
In the latest of a series of dispatches about the 737 MAX, Reuters reports it is going to take up to 150 hours of work to get each grounded 737 MAX back in the air. With 387 aircraft sitting idle around the world, that’s 58,000 hours. This figure does not include pilot training.
Each grounded aircraft needs to be checked, its fluids changed, engines tested, and the new software fix uploaded and run through, presumably very thoroughly. It will be a time consuming and expensive process.
At the time of writing, Boeing has shown its software fix to the FAA and other aviation regulatory bodies, but the software has not been formally submitted for approval. Despite this, there has been some optimism that the 737 MAX could be back in the air in the USA by the end of June.
The FAA faces criticism
The FAA has faced strong criticism for its handling of the 737 MAX’s grounding. This is in addition to questions surrounding the initial certification of the aircraft. However, the FAA’s Acting Administrator, Dan Elwell, remains confident that the grounding will end sooner rather than later. However, he declines to lay out a timetable for the ban being lifted.
Airlines are keen for Boeing to resolve issues affecting the troubled aircraft, with some CEO’s publicly stating their confidence in the MAX .
A factor impeding a swift decision to lift the grounding is whether the FAA rushed the initial certification process in the first place. This is currently under investigation by the US Congress and Department of Transport.
Some have questioned whether an under-resourced FAA gave Boeing too much leeway when first certifying the 737 MAX. The Economist reports that steps in the certification process was often lead by Boeing, who were also able to sign off on many of the MAX’s safety features.
When the 737 MAX was first certified, nearly a decade ago, Boeing was facing intense competition from rival Airbus. The European manufacturer had started producing the A320neo, a more fuel efficient aircraft than the 737. Boeing was under competitive and financial pressure, and questions are being raised about whether the certification process for the 737 MAX was rushed in order to fight back against Airbus.
It is critical for Boeing to get their MAX’s back in the air as soon as possible. They are frequently meeting with customer airlines and aviation bodies, putting considerable work into ensuring the MAX’s supply chain can immediately provide the parts needed to smooth the aircraft’s return to the skies. But some carriers are starting to pursue compensation claims with Boeing, further increasing the pressure on the manufacturer.
It’s not only the FAA that needs to be satisfied
The challenges involved in getting the 737 MAX back in the air are not limited to just making the planes ready for service. Passengers, airlines and crew all need to be confident in the aircraft too.
Even if the FAA do lift the grounding in the near future, there is no guarantee other aviation authorities will simply follow their lead. The majority (80%) of the world’s 737 MAX’s fly outside the USA, beyond the scope of the FAA.
Other aviation regulatory bodies will want to make their own decisions. While there is a history of cooperation with the FAA, questions surrounding the efficacy of the US regulator in certifying the MAX have changed the landscape. Instead of taking their word for it, other nations’ authorities will want to perform their own tests to be completely satisfied it is safe to fly.
Boeing not only has to satisfy the FAA, but also regulatory authorities in every nation in which the 737 MAX operates. In the wake of two fatal crashes and with questions surrounding the FAA, this may not be simple.
Only when the 737 MAX is cleared to fly again will the time consuming process of re-entering the 737 MAX’s into service begin. For Boeing and the airlines, that moment cannot come soon enough.