Twenty months after the jet was grounded globally following two crashes that killed 346 people, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has cleared the Boeing 737 Max to fly again.
Approval from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is set to follow in the coming days. In October, Patrick Ky, EASA executive director, had announced that he was satisfied with the changes Boeing had made to the aircraft. He added that the aircraft could return to the region’s skies before the end of the year.
It remains to be seen when other regulatory bodies around the world will unground the jet. Feng Zhenglin, Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), told reporters in October that China, which was the first country to ground the 737 Max, had not set a timetable for the plane’s return to service. The aircraft will fly again in China only after design changes are certified, pilots receive proper training, and improvements are made to address the specific findings of investigations into the crashes, Feng added.
“The design and certification of this aircraft included an unprecedented level of collaborative and independent reviews by aviation authorities around the world,” the FAA said in a statement. “Those regulators have indicated that Boeing’s design changes, together with the changes to crew procedures and training enhancements, will give them the confidence to validate the aircraft as safe to fly in their respective countries and regions.”
The lifting of the ban provides major relief for the American plane maker, but it would take months before it recovers from the crisis. Hundreds of carriers have either cancelled Max orders or deferred them, and the airline has also had to compensate airlines for financial damages incurred from the grounding of the aircraft.
Boeing currently had about 450 new Max aircraft in storage, which it hopes to deliver to customers starting next year. It also has a backlog of more than 3,000 other Boeing 737 Max planes. Because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the reluctance of airlines to take delivery of new planes, the company has had to reduce the production rate of its bestselling jet.
It may be recalled that Lion Air Flight 610 crashed in October 2018, while Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed in March 2019. Investigations into the crashes revealed that the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an automated flight control system that was meant to prevent the aircraft from stalling, was a key factor in the two crashes. Boeing is accused of not properly informing pilots of its existence. It has since made the system less aggressive.
Investigators into the two crashes had pointed fingers at both Boeing and the FAA, and held them responsible for the crashes. The U.S. House Transportation Committee’s report alleged that failures at both Boeing and the FAA “played instrumental and causative roles” in the two fatal crashes. The report mentions “a disturbing pattern of technical miscalculations and troubling management misjudgments” by Boeing, and “numerous oversight lapses and accountability gaps by the FAA.”
American Airlines is set to be the first U.S. airline to return the aircraft to commercial service at the end of December. United Airlines and Southwest Airlines will resume operating the aircraft some time next year. Gary Kelly, CEO of Southwest Airlines, has said that the airline will train all its pilots on the Max before it begins flying passengers.
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