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FAA clears Boeing 737 Max to fly again

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FAA clears Boeing 737 Max to fly again

Thursday, November 19, 2020

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After nearly two years and a pair of deadly crashes, the United States US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has cleared Boeing’s 737 Max for flight.

The nation’s air safety agency announced the move early yesterday, saying it was done after a “comprehensive and methodical” 20-month review process.

Regulators around the world grounded the Max in March 2019, after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet.

That happened less than five months after another Max flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea. A total of 346 passengers and crew members on both planes were killed.

Federal Aviation Administration chief Stephen Dickson signed an order yesterday rescinding the grounding. US airlines will be able to fly the Max once Boeing updates critical software and computers on each plane and pilots receive training in flight simulators.

The FAA says the order was made in cooperation with air safety regulators worldwide.

The move follows exhaustive congressional hearings on the crashes that led to criticism of the FAA for lax oversight and Boeing for rushing to implement a new software system that put profits over safety and ultimately led to the firing of its CEO.

Investigators focused on anti-stall software that Boeing had devised to counter the plane’s tendency to tilt nose-up because of the size and placement of the engines.

That software pushed the nose down repeatedly on both planes that crashed, overcoming the pilots’ struggles to regain control. In each case, a single faulty sensor triggered the nose-down pitch.

The new software now requires inputs from two sensors in order to activate the software. Boeing says the software also does not override pilot controls like it did in the past.

The company changed the software so it doesn’t repeatedly point the nose of the plane down to counteract possible aerodynamic stalling. Boeing also must change the way wires are routed to a tail stabiliser bar.

On CNBC Wednesday, Dickson said the design and pilot training changes required by the FAA “makes it impossible for the airplanes to have the same kind of accident that unfortunately killed 346 people”.

In an FAA video, Dickson said that for the time being, the FAA will inspect every new Max before letting the planes fly.

Boeing shares rose 3.5 per cent to US$217.38 in early trading Wednesday. That’s about half of the all-time high of US$440.62 reached on March 1, 2019, just days before the Ethiopian crash, but well above the US$95 trough in March, when the pandemic caused massive disruptions to travel and the global economy.

“These events and the lessons we have learned as a result have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity,” Boeing CEO David Calhoun said in a statement.

The aircraft maker’s redemption comes in the middle of a pandemic that has scared away passengers and decimated the aviation industry, limiting the company’s ability to make a comeback. Air travel in the US alone is down about 65 per cent from a year ago.

Boeing sales of new planes have plunged because of the Max crisis and the coronavirus pandemic. Orders for more than 1,000 Max jets have been cancelled or removed from Boeing’s backlog this year.

Each plane has a sticker price of US$99 million to US$135 million, although airlines routinely pay less.

John Hansman, an aeronautics professor at MIT, said people typically avoid airplanes for a few months after there are problems. But the Max case is unusual, and were it not for the novel coronavirus, Hansman said he would feel safe flying on a Max.

“This whole thing has had more scrutiny than any airplane in the world,” he said. “It’s probably the safest airplane to be on.”

American is the only US airline to put the Max in its schedule so far, starting with one round trip daily between New York and Miami beginning December 29.

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