737MAX: still grounded, still a problem

The saga of the 737MAX seems to be going on forever.

Mired in controversy, there’s the possible excuse that the far from over Covid19 pandemic has delayed things further. Yet it seems that it really not had that much effect on the overall process.

The FAA is still doing everything it can to extricate itself from a clearly abused over reliance on Boeing to effectively self-certify.

Behind the scenes there’s also grave concern at the FAA that their own internal failures with the 737MAX may have been duplicated into the 777-9. The idea that one of those might go down when in service doesn’t bare thinking about. The FAA certainly doesn’t want a disaster of that magnitude on it’s hands.

In part some the delays and the double and triple checking the FAA is forcing on Boeing is to make sure the process is robust and hasn’t been transferred to other programmes.

The FAA was effectively gut-punched by the MAX disaster and it’s been – to its credit – almost over cautious some would say. Personally I don’t believe in cases like this there is any such thing.

MAX10 Reveal – November 22, 2019

The MAX was so important to Boeing that they kept working on solutions through furloughs and production stops. Redeveloping software, the wiring looms (a problem that also affects older aircraft back to 1996), re-certification test flight dates have already been missed and re-scheduled.

The pandemic ‘bonus’ for Boeing was that airline demand for quick fixes, the endless airline sobbing over lack of capacity, compensation for grounded aircraft, and so on, stopped dead with all airline activity in March.

The pressure to produce aircraft without fixing them first evaporated. Yet even now, the re-started line is painfully slow, so much so that Spirit, who make the fuselage and ship them to Seattle by train, have been told to stop, at least for the time being, along with many other component suppliers.

The flip side of the coin is that cancellations are happening, but it’s not an avalanche, yet. Airlines like American and RyanAir aren’t changing their minds, seeing the fuel efficiencies and modernity of the aircraft as key aspects in getting out of the post-Covid recession.

Others have cancelled, but its less than 7% of the total order book, most worrying were the leaseholders who in the past have been a shock absorber for the manufacturers, taking orders even when airlines didn’t. But that’s more about the scale of the leasing industry now than a problem caused by by Boeing.

The biggest issues for the airlines is not knowing how the next three years will evolve. With big debts, redundancies, furloughs, bailouts and governments looking over many of their shoulders, they don’t know what they want. Deferments are the best way forward, then when the picture becomes clearer, decisions can be taken.

But first, Boeing has to prove the error filled MAX – and when you look at the litany of problems that have been uncovered it’s really quite sobering, is ready to fly, and fly reliably.

Right now, the final training requirements for pilots post-reintroduction still haven’t been finalised.

The first airline to take to the skies in the MAX is likely to be American, but when, nobody is yet saying. The best estimates are September.

Other non-US airlines will be far longer it seems. EASA, India and China all plan on certifying the MAX individually. One of the biggest casualties of the MAX crisis was the US loosing its crown as the predominant arbiter of aviation safety. Nobody trusts America any more.

In the meantime the worlds Covid recession and devastation in terms of lives lost and economies and industries devastated, goes on. For Boeing, another problem has now appeared – Airbus have committed to replace the A320 within ten years, with an evolutionary jump to hydrogen fuel and zero emissions just down the road.

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