United Airlines has given Boeing and its troubled 737 MAX aircraft a much needed vote of confidence. Oscar Munoz, CEO of the Chicago based airline, said this week that he’d be onboard the airline’s first 737 MAX flight once the aircraft was cleared to fly again.
It comes in a week when Boeing is taking it’s software fix to a meeting of 33 aviation regulatory bodies in Dallas.
Prior to the grounding, United had 14 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft flying with a further 137 on order.
Last October a Lion Air Boeing 737 MAX crashed after taking off from Jakarta. In March 2019, a Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crashed just outside Addis Ababa. In total, 346 people died.
Local aviation authorities around the world quickly began grounding the 737 MAX. Boeing finally followed suit on 13th March 2019, recommending “the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft”.
Investigators believe that faulty sensor data triggered an anti-stall system called the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) on the aircraft. This pushed the nose of the plane down, having dire consequences. There has been a suggestion that a bird strike may have been involved with the Ethiopian crash.
The problem was that Boeing didn’t let its buyers know about MCAS, and pilots weren’t trained in its use. Prior to the crashes, there had been several reported instances of pilots having difficulties controlling the aircraft shortly after take off.
Boeing has recently said that it has developed a software fix, testing it over 360 hours on more than 200 flights. The software has been passed to the FAA and other countries’ aviation authorities for approval.
An expensive business
Over 40 airlines were flying the 737 MAX prior to the grounding, including Southwest, American and United. These three US airlines have grounded a total of 72 aircraft.
Southwest has now cancelled 160 flights a day operated by its 34 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft and American is cancelling around 115 flights a day operated by its 24 Boeing 737 MAXs. United, with only 14 737 MAXs has been able to substitute in other aircraft types and largely avoid cancelling flights.
In an industry where safety is paramount, the two crashes and subsequent grounding have rattled confidence in the 737 MAX.
Numerous airlines have deferred purchases and deliveries.
In addition, the grounding is costing airlines hundreds of millions of dollars in lost revenue. United has declined to put a dollar amount on it, but rival American Airlines, albeit with a larger 737 MAX fleet, has said the grounding will cost it approximately USD$350 million. Boeing expects it earnings to drop 21% in the first quarter of 2019 due to the grounding.
The reputational damage to the Boeing 737 MAX is particularly acute for Boeing – prior to the grounding it had USD$26 billion worth of 737 MAX orders on its books.
When will the 737 MAX fly again ?
If Boeing has a viable fix, it’s clearly in the airline’s interests to get their planes back in the air. Boosting passenger confidence in the 737 MAX is behind Oscar Munoz’s willingness to step onboard. “Just because somebody says it’s safe, you as the flying public aren’t just going to get on the aircraft,” Munoz said in Chicago last week.
American Airlines CEO, Doug Parker, has also stepped up and said he would be on his airline’s first Boeing 737 MAX flight too.
Boeing is confident is has resolved the software issue and the CEO’s are falling into line. There is some pressure on the FAA, the most powerful aviation regulatory body in the world, to pick up the pace and clear the aircraft.
They were one of the last regulators in the world to ground the 737 MAX, taking criticism for that. Now Dan Elwell, Acting Administrator of the FAA is standing firm, saying there is no timeline to lift the grounding and that they want to see and assess the software fixes.
Airlines are progressively amending their flight schedules throughout the upcoming northern hemisphere summer to take into account the continued grounding.
That contingency planning combined with the FAA’s caution suggest Oscar Munoz won’t be stepping onto that plane anytime too soon.
Would you be happy to go on the first United 737 MAX flight with Oscar Munoz? Let us know in the comments.