The MAX is back, and I don’t really care. That may sound callous and strange, but really, that’s how airlines should want this to be. It’s just another 737, now improved so it won’t occasionally try to kill you when you fly. But of course, not everyone feels the way I do. The MAX has spent the last two years in the headlines, and never for good reason. That’s why many in the general public are wary about the airplane. Airlines realize this, and have all been following the same path: be transparent and flexible.
For those who have been living in a cave without internet for the last two years, it’s important to understand how we got here. After all, I should provide some justification for why I have no concerns about the airplane anymore. So, let’s start here.
The Source of the Problem: The MAX And Its Engines
When the 737 was first built with early-generation jet engines, it was low to the ground The old cigar-shaped engines fit nicely, and it made it easy to access the airplane. The second generation, now called “Classic,” had higher bypass engines which didn’t exactly fit. So what did they do? They flattened the nacelles at the bottom to get the clearance needed. Then came the third generation, so-called “Next Generation” or NG. The NGs got a makeover where the airplane was jacked up, allowing for higher bypass engines to fit with normal, rounded
nacelles cowlings. And now we’re on the MAX, the fourth generation. There’s only so much torturing you can do to a 60 year-old airframe, so this time, they also moved the engines forward and up to help gain clearance. That is where the problems began.
With the engines in a different place, the center of gravity shifted. This meant that the airplane could find itself in an unstable position in certain high-bank turns. Boeing was under pressure to not make too many changes to the 737 in this new variant, because it didn’t want to recertify it as a new airplane. Having it as the same type made it easier for pilots and airlines to use the airplane with minimal training. So, Boeing built in a software fix behind the scenes that it thought was so minor that it didn’t even need to tell pilots. This was the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). Basically, in a turn if the nose pitched up too high, it would automatically push it down. It wasn’t expected that this would be used often, but it was just there for safety reasons. Poor design, however, turned it into a murder weapon.
For reasons beyond any rational understanding, Boeing made several fatal errors in designing this system, and I’ll focus on two. First and foremost, it designed it to rely on a single sensor to interpret the airplane’s positioning. If that sensor was faulty, it could trigger the system to activate. Second, it was designed to continuously try to pitch the nose down when it saw a problem. When a Lion Air MAX plunged into the ocean after takeoff, they blamed the pilots and said it could have been easily overridden. I believed them. When an Ethiopian MAX did the same thing months later, it was harder to believe. The airplane was grounded and remained so for more than a year and a half.
Fixing the Airplane
If you want to get angry, you can get into the weeds of how Boeing blew this, how the FAA didn’t do its job, and how everyone involved failed in making sure this airplane was safe. But I’ll stay away from that today. Instead, I’ll just point to the fixes. The MCAS still exists, because it is important to have that protection for these corner cases. But now, it relies on two sensors in case one goes bad. Further, it will only try to push the nose down once during an event. If the sensors still show that didn’t work, then the MCAS won’t try again because it’s probably just a faulty data read. And yes, pilots will now be trained on this. All of this together, combined with the fact that the airplane was gone over with a fine-toothed comb by multiple safety agencies around the world makes me feel comfortable that it’s now just another 737.
From the passenger perspective, it’s the same inside as a 737 NG. The fuselage itself hasn’t changed since the beginning. Sure, there are Sky Interiors with embedded bins and pretty lights, but those existed on the NGs as well. From a passenger perspective, all you’re likely to notice is that it’s quieter. Oh, and if you look at the end of the window, those wingtips are split and look different. That’s pretty much it.
Airlines Tread Cautiously
All that being said, airlines know that ongoing negative media coverage has scared the hell out of people. Not everyone is looking in-depth at what fixes are in place, and whether it’s safe. They just know that it was so unsafe previously that the airplane was grounded for a really long time. They know it crashed twice. And people will be rightfully anxious. The airlines all understood this and have bent over backwards to be as consumer-friendly as possible.
It all starts with making sure that people even know that they’ll be flying on a MAX in the first place. All of this talk about re-branding the airplane is ill-advised. Right now, people should be clearly told that they are on a MAX so that they can feel comfortable. They don’t want it to look like something is being hidden. All the US-based carriers get this so far. Elsewhere, some carriers seem more interested in ditching the name. Ryanair is a good example.
American was the first airline in the US — Gol and Aeromexico started flying earlier in December month — to put the airplane back in scheduled service on the New York/LaGuardia – Miami run last week. It has said that anyone who doesn’t want to fly the airplane can switch at no cost. It will also make sure that people know in advance that they’re on a MAX.
United has gone even further. It says that once it starts flying the airplane, it will ensure that no more than half of any flights on any given route will be on the MAX. That means if people do want to switch, they will have non-MAX options readily available. Further, United says it won’t swap a MAX airplane on to a flight scheduled to be operated by another aircraft anytime soon.
This may seem silly to go to such great lengths, but the rationale is sound. Don’t hide anything, and people will be able to make their own choices. That being said, the airlines don’t need to rub it in people’s faces. American and Southwest, for example, will just say 737 on the safety card since it applies to the MAX and previous generations. That’s fine. The key is making sure people know in advance, but once they’re on the airplane, it no longer matters.
Over time, the MAX will prove itself by flying safely day in and day out. And eventually, this will become a non-issue for the traveling public. But the burden is on the MAX and the airlines to get people comfortable again. So far, they’re making the right moves.