Boeing's 737 Max is ready to fly, but maybe not passengers

The ultimate test for the troubled Boeing 737 Max may be cautious travellers.

By Bloomberg News, November 20 2020
Boeing's 737 Max is ready to fly, but maybe not passengers

Fatal flaws in the Boeing 737 Max have been addressed and the plane is now safe to fly, U.S. aviation regulators contend. Yet for many airline travelers, a central question remains: Do I feel safe flying in a plane that crashed twice, killing 346 people?

“There’s no way I’m flying it, period,” said Jon Bonne, a New York-based food and wine writer. “No one in commercial aviation scraps a bad airplane and just starts over. So we’re stuck with the Max.”

The Max’s catastrophic failures were attributed to Boeing’s shortcomings and U.S. regulators’ deference to the industry they govern.

“That’s what caused the Max to get off the factory line with a whole lot of problems,” said Jerry Elmas, a sales executive in Austin, Texas, who plans to “wait a couple of years” before flying on a Max, even if it means adding a connection to one of his trips.

“I’m a business person,” he said. “If I kill my customers, they don’t come back. It’s the oddest thing.”

Others noted that the Max is now among the most analyzed aircraft in history, given the aftermath of the late 2018 crash off Indonesia and the second disaster a few months later in Ethiopia.

Having grounded the plane in March 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration lifted its order on Wednesday.

“I guess I just trust enough in the airline industry given their overall record,” said Kristen O’Brien, a writer in Austin, Texas. “The Max has been so scrutinized now that I feel like, if anything, it’s got to be safer than other planes.”

Bringing back the Max

The four U.S. airlines that have bought the 737 Max are preparing to return it to service in coming months, with American Airlines leading the way in late December on flights between its Miami hub and New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

United Airlines said each one of its Max airplanes will require about 1,000 hours of work and training before resuming service in the first quarter of 2021.

Alaska Airlines will take the first of its 32 aircraft in January and begin customer flights in March. Southwest Airlines, the largest Max customer, plans to resume flying the plane in the second quarter.

“If we had a cause for doubt of the safety of our fleet – or any subset of it – simply put, the planes would not fly,” Southwest Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly said Wednesday in a customer letter.

People keep asking "would you fly the #737MAX" and my answer is simple: at some point I won't have a choice if I want to get somewhere, and that'll be that," says aviation analyst Jason Rabinowitz.

"Though I will say that the resumption of flights next month should not be celebrated or turned into an event. People died."

Passsengers get to choose

American Airlines said that if its passengers don’t want to fly on a 737 Max, they won’t have to.

“If a customer prefers to not fly on this aircraft, we’ll provide flexibility to ensure they can be easily re-accommodated,” the carrier said in a message to employees. Southwest and United are also offering similar options to leery passengers.

While the coronavirus has decimated the aviation industry, it may also serve to drown out media scrutiny of the Max’s return, said Spud Hilton, a former travel editor at the San Francisco Chronicle.

He said he’ll fly on the Max without trepidation, and noted that most airline travelers don’t pay attention to which aircraft type they’re on anyway.

“Because of the pandemic, I think people are a lot more worried to get on any plane than on any specific plane,” Hilton said.

“I don’t mean to say that the 737 Max has benefited from the pandemic, but the pandemic has certainly taken a lot of attention away from its history.”

Close scutiny

John DiScala of Los Angeles, who runs the JohnnyJet.com travel news and credit card referral website, said he won’t hesitate to fly on a Max, because of the global regulatory scrutiny it’s received – and as a result, Boeing’s effort to fix it.

“But it’s not my plane of choice,” he added, pointing not to its crashes, but to its often tight cabin configurations.

But others are unwilling to give Boeing a second chance.

“I do not like this track record,” said Alison Hansen, a corporate learning executive in Dallas. “Given options, what would be the reason to choose that plane? There’s no reason.”

Boeing’s Max development was plagued by missteps, including faulty assumptions about pilots’ reactions and U.S. regulators who were ill-prepared to assess Boeing’s design changes, according to an international safety review released in October 2019.

In a statement Wednesday, Boeing CEO David Calhoun said the Max crashes “have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values.”

A question of trust

The Max has likely emerged from its 20-month grounding as a safer model than most because of probes by multiple regulators, said Jamie Perry, a marketing executive in New York and a former airline executive.

“I would have had qualms about flying it after the two crashes – but before it was grounded,” he wrote in a note Wednesday. “Then it felt high risk. I don’t feel that way now.”

An open question for Boeing and the airlines who buy its planes is how long will the Max’s reputation linger in the mind of travelers? It could be a case where customer fears mar the plane for only a short time – unless there’s another major incident.

“That perception will hang around for years, but it won’t necessarily be a deterrent,” Hilton predicted. “It’ll just be ‘Oh yeah, remember when this thing used to fall out of the sky?’”

Readers are invited to share their own opinion on whether or not they would fly on the Boeing 737 Max, but are requested to stay on topic (and reminded in advance that the topic is not a simplistic 'Airbus vs Boeing')

This article is published under license from Bloomberg Media: the original article can be viewed here

24 Aug 2011

Total posts 808

I remain astonished that Boeing has not rebranded the MAX prior to its return to service.  Usually most passengers wouldn't know what plane they were flying on but there has been lots of publicity regarding the MAX's faults and I think the name is now toxic.

05 Mar 2015

Total posts 113

I would not have any concern about setting foot on a 737 MAX because as somebody in the article pointed out, the plane has now been rigorously tested and restested, scrutinised to the inch, all of the issues appear to have been identified and addressed. It could end up being the safest aircraft flying today because of that. But I think Boeing will drop the 'MAX' brand and just call these new planes by their official model numbers of the 737-8, 737-9 and 737-10.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 May 2019

Total posts 18

I will not be willingly and knowingly flying in a Max if at all possible. It is an inherently unstable plane that needs software to keep it flying. Sorry I too love the 747, 787 and the 737-800 series Boeing planes. But they pushed this 1960's design well past optimal in order to compete against the A320 NEO.  When many, many non aviation fans tell me that they wont fly in a MAX, then I do not stand alone.

11 Jul 2020

Total posts 59

All modern aircraft use software to fly the aircraft by a little thing called the auto pilot in conjuction with the navigation computer. The pilots generally look after the take off and landing of the aircraft or a problem that night arise when they have to disengage the auto pilot  and manually fly the aircraft. I have flown on the Boeing 787 Max and will do again knowing that the FAA would really  scrutinize the air worthiness of this aircraft since it had the software issue prior to giving it recertification to fly once more. There have been aircraft models that have crashed in the past both manufactured by Boeing and Airbus due to design faults  a incorrect part installed  and pilot error, yet this has not stopped me from flying on these aircrafts. But each to their own.

Etihad - Etihad Guest

21 Jul 2019

Total posts 53

A qualified yes from me. But for me that's normal and, I will continue to do what I've done since the 90s and wait approx. 8 years first (which is about the time it takes for an aircraft to have its D or heavy maintenance check) before I fly a new aircraft type. Any problems are usually bound to happen within the first few years of flying (787 battery fires) or get picked up by the D check (microcracks on a380 wings). It's the reason I didn't fly the a380 till 2016 and will not fly the 787 for another couple of years due to my personal time 'reset' because of the battery fires of 2013. But each to his/her own....

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 279

I agree with you that if ever I have a real opportunity to be given a choice without the practical penalty of inconvenience, I will wait for the first D check to really be sure about something but not sure it’s 8 years for 737 max. Most newer models are looking at 9-12 years for D maintenance including 787 and original 737, so 8 years would only have been for heavily used equipment.

But I would normally consider 5 years as a good run in time in the old days with opportunity for the companies to sort out their sh*t and in practice it is almost impossible to avoid popular models for domestic flights unlike long haul flights.

Unfortunately in the last few years there are signs the safety culture has changed particularly for a certain manufacturer and indication that whistleblower protection is weakened, and complacency of safety (such that all the good news stories about airline safety, and reference to safety culture mostly related to flight crew approach) meant the mythology and gloss of airline industry safety reputation is somehow assumed in the airplane manufacturer as well, which of course is quite a different issue.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

06 Aug 2017

Total posts 55

Flying really is the safest way to travel and I have no doubt that flying on the MAX is extremely safe. But the reality is that there are always teething problems with planes and, highly complex and sophisticated as they are, it can take years for all the issues to be discovered and dealt with. Just off the top of my head I can think of the following examples:

  • Two 737s fell out of the sky in the 1990s with then-undiscovered rudder issues.
  • The A320 initially had a confusing display which could cause pilots to mistake the angle of descent with the rate of descent, causing a crash in Germany.
  • The A330 initially had a software problem causing a Qantas PER-SIN flight in 2008 to go into an uncontrolled dive.
  • We all remember QF32, where an engine flaw on the A380 caused a catastrophic failure.
  • I also have a vague memory of cargo bay door issues on the 747 causing catastrophic decompression before the doors were redesigned (or was that the DC-10?)

The above planes are all EXTREMELY safe … but at the beginning of a plane’s life, no matter how extensive the testing, it’s inevitable that there will be undiscovered issues.

Would I fly the MAX? Yes, it’s safe. But, for the next few years, the 737NG and A320 will be safer options.

31 Dec 2017

Total posts 4

No, it was inherently unsafe, that's the whole point, it was redesigned with a narrower flight envelope, but instead of retraining pilots, they fitted MCAS, an autonomous system designed to dive the aircraft, and didn't tell the pilots. MCAS had a single point failure mode. The risk should have been blindingly obvious. Would have taken two minutes to figure out what went wrong after the first crash so the second crash should never have happened. It isn't just about fixing the aircraft, it's about fixing a rotten safety culture. 

Etihad - Etihad Guest

19 Jun 2019

Total posts 6

I would try and avoid the plane if I could but I would fly if I had no other options. What I don't like about the plane is airlines are squishing so many people into it. That is why I would prefer to fly on a different model. Look at American they give you 30# pitch and low as 16.6# widith. I would rather a bit more comfort than that. 

31 Mar 2014

Total posts 344

That's why you fly business instead

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

12 Sep 2011

Total posts 159

who flys coach domestically  - if its international its FIRST 

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 279

Let’s put it this way, although airline companies claim that they give pax a choice, I don’t know what yardstick they can use to tell the difference.

I would think twice about booking a seat in a 737max, but if the connection is tight, there are no alternatives for timeline you can travel, or a last minute change in equipment, then I would be still end up flying in 737max.

It can be for the leisure pax as well; if you ask them up front they would not want o travel in one, but I suspect most would not think about it when they are actually booking a flight, being more engrossed with timing and pricing 

XWu
XWu

09 May 2020

Total posts 279

BTW all the US aircrafts will need changes to maintenance program in addition to an upgrade in software, according to this months aviation news and whilst not mentioned, probably a pilot retraining somewhere along that line (they also added more info in the flight manual.... surely they cannot guarantee that the pilots will do the reading in their unpaid private time..... some having second jobs for those 2nd-3rd tier airline pilots)

Jetstar Airways - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Jun 2020

Total posts 1

Don’t think I’ll be flying the max as it’s an old product rebuild renovated and extended and now they’re trying to make something fly that probably shouldn’t. I agree we probably won’t have a choice however some airlines will choose airbus  and some will choose Boeing and my preference would be Airbus in the future for shorthaul remember why the Max was built because Airbus meet the market with a products that work. Finally the culture of a business can’t be changes overnight and that has been built into their products .

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

18 May 2011

Total posts 231

I think it's academic weather I fly a MAX or not - if the aircraft that is about take me to my destination is a MAX, and there's no more flights that can get me there, then on I hop.

But hopefully before that situation comes to pass, 1,000s of MAX flights take place and prove the aircraft safe.

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

12 Sep 2011

Total posts 159

Yes with SARS COV2 its academic! Didn't Qantas' latest 787 deliveries from Boeing recently fly staig to the "GRAVEYARD"?

12 Dec 2012

Total posts 1000

Qantas hasn't received any 787s since last December when VH-ZNK was delivered.

ZNL, ZNM and ZNN are ready for delivery and have been stored by Boeing as Qantas has deferred delivery.

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

12 Sep 2011

Total posts 159

If its Boeing I'm still not go-eing

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

28 Oct 2011

Total posts 403

Not sure which airline you'll be using, in that case. QF domestic is almost all B737, VA is now all B737, new Rex is all B737 on the trunk routes. 

Singapore Airlines - KrisFlyer

09 Jun 2016

Total posts 5

Jetstar

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

12 Sep 2011

Total posts 159

darls 737MAX is a different beast from 737-8, -9 I flown on these many times in AU and USA  too  big  and too forward engines on a 737MAX  I was due to fly on one last april from Adis Ababba to Tel aviv and chose to fly  QR F PER-DOH-AMM  then RJ on an A320 AMM-TLV (same as this April but CXLD thx to COVID) Ill fly a proven Boeing Aircraft built in Seattle not some crap built in NC  (aka North Carolina ) by burger flippers  Do you discern?  I always chose my aircraft BTW my cuzns sun is an aeronautical engineer trained at Boston MIT and werks fuer BING  And you?

11 Jul 2020

Total posts 59

That only leaves Jetsar John with non Boeing product of the mainstream competitors. Considering it will take awhile until the 737 max arrives in Australia as airlines delayed their orders, I think the 737 Max will have proven itself overseas as a safe aircraft.

Qantas

19 Apr 2012

Total posts 1124

Oz Qantas may move to the A320 family given their outstanding orders for airbus.

AT
AT

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

14 Sep 2012

Total posts 327

Like others I’ll give it a few years of solid flying before I get on the Max. 

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

24 Jan 2018

Total posts 369

Boeing need's to show just how much faith its own board of Directors and Senior Management Team TRULY DO HAVE (or not) in the plane.  Let them all fly together in the same plane doing a 'road show' between all major US airports across all 50 States, one after the other, consecutively - without incident.  

It might take 3-4 days to do, but what else do they have to do for the company?  If they expect me to fly in one, I'd like to see a tangible show of faith by them - FIRST !!!

Etihad - Etihad Guest

06 Apr 2012

Total posts 108

The design flaws of the MAX were one thing, but the ensuing investigation which brought into the open the management culture at Boeing to prioritize financial performance above customer safety is what has eroded public trust in the brand.

18 Nov 2020

Total posts 2

I would have no problem in flying in the 737 Max

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

11 Oct 2014

Total posts 551

In the end, the question of whether you'd fly on a B737-8MAX or 10MAX is largely academic. Since we live in a domestic legacy oligopoly, you'll fly what QF or VA chooses to order. Alliance and Rex won't matter for the next 5-7 years.

The real issue here is : would any Australian domestic carrier willingly order the B737-MAX series? 

Australians fly a lot domestically and are not as 'plane naïve' as some think. Like it or not, Boeing has attracted worldwide attention over this mess - and unless you're living under a rock, you'd be aware of this issue. I think we have much of the answer with Qantas, given their existing 100+ order for A320's. 

Virgin is another story. Whilst we are yet to see what will happen with their B737-8MAX / B737-10 MAX order, I would be fairly sure that those deposits may well be transferred to other less controversial products ie: B787's or B737-800's (non MAX).

It would be a very, very 'game' Australian-based organisation to take a risk with perceived safety in this country. And this is all about perception. 

Flights in the USA will not be so problematic - the 3 main carriers (AA, WN, UA) who already have the MAX in their fleets are guaranteeing that if a customer objects to flying on a scheduled MAX flight, that a no-charge change will be available for the involved / re-routed sector. We'll see how long that lasts ..   

United Airlines - Mileage Plus

12 Sep 2011

Total posts 159

BTW Love my 787-10, 787-9 transcon USA   on UA Years ago was meant to be on an inaguaurla training flight ERW-IAD on UA and even UA then decided 787-8 was too unsafe to fly   All the 787-8  grounded at IAD Have many pics from landing and going downtown IAD  of the then grounded 787-8  Even Americans aren't that dumb!

Air Canada - Aeroplan

28 Feb 2015

Total posts 47

The Max is not yet certified in Canada, where extra checks and training are being done first (definitely a good idea). Meanwhlie Air Canada is running A220s on previous Max routes. I'd tryto avoid travel on a Max but would take it if nothing else is available. I'm just as un-keen to fly on Dreamliners, however, and avoid those where there is a choice.

22 Nov 2020

Total posts 1

Just wondering.... Am I missing something in the Article.... There is a quote 

 “I’m a business person,” he said. “If I kill my customers, they don’t come back. It’s the oddest thing.”"

Well DUH!!

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

07 Dec 2014

Total posts 167

I guess in normal times, the whole process would have been under far more media scrutiny - but once COVID hit, it no longer a major media issue. So I haven't seen much reporting about the fixes done to the MAX. 

As others have said, this isn't the first time the 737 has had lethal design problems (the rudder issues on previous models having caused a number of fatal crashes in the 90s.

Given Virgin is presumably not receiving its 737 MAXs anytime soon anymore (if ever), I don't believe these aircraft will be flying in Australia anytime soon ... and with the Australian border closed, we'll all have at least a year or so of 'watch and see' of the aircraft flying overseas. 

Joe
Joe

03 May 2013

Total posts 543

The criminal actions of management should be reason a one to send a strong message to Boeing that their greed wont be tolerated(nor that of any other manufacturer) You all go on about the safety of the max but sweep under the carpet the unethical and knowingly criminal actions of management. That the CEO had to resign and the plane sit on the ground two years says it all. It should have ended the life of the 737.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

11 Oct 2014

Total posts 551

Joe, I think you'd have to agree that Boeing had - over the past 7-8 years - become a management-detached, arrogant organisation that squandered the company's long history of safety and engineering excellence. That led to the subsequent  squandering of ethics, in dealing questionably with Government 'masters' and regulators.

The fact that the US Government saw it necessary to embark on a full FBI discovery investigation into the FAA says it all. The FAA handing over regulatory oversight to the manufacturer (Boeing) was tantamount to the jailer handing over the prison keys to the inmates.

Boeing's arrogance and braggadocio, when the Indonesian Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines B737-8 MAX frames crashed and killed hundreds of people, was without precedence. Boeing sought to blame everything under the sun on both operators - despite the fact that Lion Air was one of their largest book order customers - and Ethiopian was a long-time Boeing customer which had a respected safety culture. 

In my opinion, Boeing has fully deserved everything it has received and more, over the past two years. While I still hold products of the Joe Sutter era in awe, I have little respect or trust for the most current products. 

Ultimately, I see a time 10 years hence when the industry looks back and says that the emergence of Airbus in the 2000-2010 period pushed Boeing hard to compete. In competing in an underhand manner, Boeing was caught out - and the benefit of a revised and reformed culture was for the resultant good of Boeing. That benefit has not quite arrived yet, but I expect it won't be too fat off. However, I am loathe to place any 'trust' in the company right at this point in time.

Joe
Joe

03 May 2013

Total posts 543

The fact 350 people lost their lives due to Boeing's criminal greed, sending planes into the skies despite being warned against doing so is a red line crossed for me. I think it should be that way for anyone with a conscious and ethics. As frequent flyers we should be united on that point. Could have been any one of us or our family members, friends etc. on those ill fated flights.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

30 Dec 2016

Total posts 18

This was the inevitable consequence of McDonnell Douglas taking over Boeing. 

31 Dec 2017

Total posts 4

Boeing's redesign made the aircraft inherently less safe so they added MCAS to avoid costly pilot recertification, and the FAA allowed it. MCAS was a safety system that killed people, but hundreds of designers and certifiers failed to spot its obvious risks. Now they say it's OK? Does that mean MCAS is still fitted, but they've frigged around with its software so now it should work safely? I think customers need a bit more assurance. 


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