Eventually, You’ll Fly the MAX Again, But Nobody Will Make You Do It Now

737

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.

38 comments on “Eventually, You’ll Fly the MAX Again, But Nobody Will Make You Do It Now

  1. You write that ‘ The NGs got a makeover where the airplane was jacked up, allowing for higher bypass engines to fit with normal, rounded nacelles.’. I was just checking pictures of NG 737s, but they all still have the flat bottom of the nacelles. Is there a version of the NG I don’t know of? Or am I misunderstanding you?

    1. Jorg – Doh, bad wording on my part. I should have said (and have now updated with) cowlings, not nacelles. The cowlings on the Classics are not round, but the ones on the NGs are. The nacelles are still not round.

  2. While The Air Current focuses more on the manufacturing side of the commercial aviation industry, I’m glad you dealt with this topic.
    The whole MAX issue highlights just one of several reasons why Boeing literally lost much of what made itself the world’s premier aerospace company.

    Why Boeing built the MCAS with a single sensor is beyond comprehension because no other major Boeing system on any aircraft works on a single path. Hiding the architecture and logic of MCAS from pilots only compounded the problem; any rational, educated human can adapt if they know all of the facts – but they didn’t. Having US fans repeatedly say that “this would have never happened to US pilots” defies the fact that US pilots repeatedly failed to recover the MAX in the simulator.

    Getting the MAX back in the air is only part of the problem. The MAX is far less capable than the A321NEO and it is also not competitive on the low end. Boeing’s attempt to acquire part of Embraer backfilled so the MAX works only in the middle of the narrowbody range even as airlines are more interested than ever in meeting fleet needs on either side of the historical 150/160 seat “sweet spot” for narrowbodies.

    Boeing matters to the US as the largest exporter. Unfortunately, the trade wars with Europe are going to Europe Boeing just as much if not more than Airbus. Just as Boeing is ready to deliver hundreds of grounded MAXs to European airlines, those aircraft are faced with tariffs in retaliation for the US doing the same for imported Airbus aircraft – and now even the components not made in the US that are used to build Airbus and Boeing aircraft in the US. Boeing judged very badly with its request for tariffs against the A220 – not only was the tariff request rejected but Airbus ended up picking up the A220, leaving an even bigger advantage for Airbus.

    Now, there are mountains of problems with the 787 and they will be costly to fix. With just the MAX and 787 as the only aircraft that are really selling globally, Boeing’s product line is smaller than ever.

    As an American and someone that has proudly flown Boeing aircraft on airlines around the world, I truly hope Boeing gets itself turned around. Very quickly.

    1. Agree fully with your points. In isolation, I’m not worried about the Max safety but it’s part of a decade+ series of bad decisions on the part of Boeing. I’ll be willing to pay a small premium / suffer schedule inconvenience / ignore airline loyalty to get on an A32x (or maybe A22x in the future) over a Max since it will always be less safe (even if it’s to a microscopic degree) and definitely worse paxex than its class competitors.

    2. Great points. I think it’s important to remember that shareholder price became the main goal of Boeing over engineering prowess and, sadly, safety.

      This is not uncommon in the industry now as quality and engineering fight an everyday battle to support sales and EBITDA. There are many tier 1 suppliers who act like this (see Flight Global’s annual revenue/EBITDA by aerospace company).

  3. The question I have is when the two AOA sensors disagree, how does MCAS determine which one is correct? Boeing should have gone to 3 AOA sensors so MCAS could use 2 out of 3 voting.

    1. Uhhh, ya think?

      The worst decision Boeing probably ever made was not doing a neo 757, aka, the 757-400. The plane should have been capable of intercontinental range and been able to go nose to nose with the A321neo. Instead, they took a rubber airplane and stretched it to the breaking point, adding few of the developments arising from the Dreamliner program.

      Imagine where Boeing would be today if they had the 757-400 in production. United would not have ordered the A321 neo. They’d have a complete product line and, hopefully, would have incorporated parts of the advanced ceramics in the Dreamliner into the 757-400. But, alas, the beancounters took over and we get an abhorrent airplane that’s going to be obsolete within a few years.

      That said, I have no problem flying a Max. The plane is like the DC-10, so gone over that absent pilot error, I see no way any will ever fall from the sky. What’s good about the Max now is that it cleaned up problems with the FAA certification process and taught Boeing a huge lesson.

  4. Not correct on the split wingtips. Later NG models have them also, though they look slightly different. The most obvious way to tell is the serrated rear nacelle cuts.

    1. Randy – Those are different. The split scimitar wingtips on the NG are basically regular blended winglets pointing up with an additional fin that comes out and down. The MAX has a totally integrated wing where it just splits into two at the end. They call it an AT (advanced technology) winglet.

  5. I enjoyed this article as I enjoy all the articles, but I’ll raise a hand at the opening comment — “The MAX has spent the last two years in the headlines, and never for good reason.” I think anytime you have two airplanes go down due to manufacturing reasons (and yes, maybe some pilot error/training) the public has a right to know. That’s 346 lost souls and I’m thankful for a press that pursues this story, and helps hold stakeholders accountable.

    Has the reporting been a bit over the top at times? Of course. That being said I would fly a MAX tomorrow and not sweat a drop, mask on of course.

  6. Cranky

    I think your sentence “First and foremost, it designed it to rely on a single sensor to interpret the airplane’s positioning” is somewhat misleading.

    It is my understanding that a second Angle of Attack (AOA) sensor as well as an AOA disagree light in the cockpit were available as an option and that some (maybe most?) of the US airlines went with that configuration.

    Maybe a better way to phrase your sentence would be “it was designed that it COULD rely on a single sensor……”

    Being a United 1K, I definitely want to fly the max (new aircraft type) as soon as United gets them back in the air and will have no problem whatsoever reserving a seat and flying in it.

    The max flying again is maybe a sign that normalcy in the airline industry is returning in 2021!

    We can only hope!!

    1. Keith,
      I think many are aghast that a safety system would be optional. if MCAS operates best with two sensors, it should not be optional.

      and, if airlines had the option to not buy the second sensor, was it ultimately in Boeing’s best interest to have airlines that didn’t order that redundancy have an accident that destroyed Boeing’s reputation?

      Of course some airlines knew what was at stake and bought the option. Boeing’s reputation and the grounding didn’t come as a result of those airlines but others that Boeing was happy to sell “lesser” MAXs to.

    2. Simple misunderstanding, Keith. The aircraft has two sensors, but MCAS relies on only one. Why? Because if you have two you can’t distinguish which one is accurate and which is inaccurate. Boeing’s solution was to connect MCAS exclusively to the Captain’s AOA, which is pretty standard for two-sensor setups. Boeing’s logic was that the pilots were an adequate fail-safe for such a system based on prior training for similar problems. That proved a false assumption, and the legal drama is that Boeing allegedly deliberately tried to prevent regulators from testing that assumption. A more robust system would have a tie-breaking third AOA (real or synthetic). But that’s an implausible retrofit, so they’ve opted for a more fail-passive system where any AOA disagreement disables MCAS.

      The “optional” equipment was an AOA disagreement annunciator for the pilots. As a pilot with NG (but not Max) time, I’d suggest such an indication is most useful if tied to a memorized checklist that would promptly disable MCAS, otherwise it becomes just one new problem in a cascading sea of problems those crews would be facing during an AOA failure and MCAS runaway. Unfortunately for it to be in a checklist the issue would have needed to be known and trained, which is what Boeing was working strongly against.

      1. Eric:

        Thank you for the correction and the added information.

        Comments and insights like yours is why I like reading the comments section to Cranky’s blog.

      2. I agree that your commentary is very helpful, Eric C
        Failure number 1 was not architecture but failure to acknowledge the existence and nature of MCAS.
        It is precisely because Boeing wasn’t honest w/ regulators or its own customers (airlines, or at least their pilots) that their credibility is most damaged.
        Aircraft do crash, unfortunately. There is and will be extensive analysis of accidents. The MAX issue got into so many layers that turned bad – unlike any other accident – because the focus quickly shifted to the manufacturer and not the operating airline, weather, or other factors that don’t potentially impact every flight on that model.

        I really want to believe everyone has learned from this nasty episode. Boeing does bear scars – reputationally and financially – that will take time to recover at a time when no one in the airline or aerospace industry can afford it.

    3. Keith – As others have noted, MCAS never worked on two sensors. There was an option for additional information in the cockpit, but it didn’t change how MCAS worked.

  7. It’s just my opinion, but Boeing got off way too easily for killing that many people with its arrogance and shortcuts. The plane has been flying reliably 50+ years and its employees made conscience bad decisions (one sensor, pressuring FAA to self-certify, improper testing, etc.) under pressure from all levels internally and customers to get this new variant out. There should have been more impact done to the workforce and those responsible, considering the criminality involved. Fines and compensation for victims and their families from a company worth billions of dollars (a drop in the bucket in other words) doesn’t address this last point.

    1. On the one hand I know what you mean, but on the other, in some salient ways you’re wrong. Within the industry, Boeing’s reputation is in tatters. That matters and will have an impact over time.

  8. I share the opinion that Boeing has gotten off way too easily with its botched handling of the 737 MAX, an aircraft that should never have been built. The lack of retribution for Boeing is mostly due to the fact that, in spite of Airbus having the clearly superior aircraft (newer and more optimized design) in most respects, the 150-200 seat market is too big for them to supply alone. I understand the rationale in re-engining and developing new iterations of an aircraft type and consider it a perfectly legitimate way to produce a new aircraft at minimal cost. The 737NG (well except the-900/900ER) and A320neo are examples of this strategy being well executed. The MAX, however, is a frame that has already been stretched way too far. The 737-900 should have been a warning sign of the 737 reaching its limits, with its commercial success attributable to airlines willing to accept its inferior performance and tailstrike risks for the sake of commonality with existing fleets. I would wait to fly the MAX again given how Boeing has taken every opportunity to try to rush through the recertification process and has not demonstrated any intent to change its behavior. I am not naive enough to think I will be able to avoid the MAX forever, but I will definitely avoid it until it has demonstrated a year or two of safe flights, which I think odds are it will. As a passenger, I already choose the A320 family over the 737 whenever I have a choice for the slightly better passenger comfort (I must say I notice a significant difference even on short haul having flown both extensively), and this only confirms my bias. Of course, I am in the minority the general public will forget about it and continue to get on the 60 year old sardine can dressed up with quieter engines, the sky interior, and scimitars without a care.

    In conclusion, the MAX will recover. I don’t know if we can say the same for Boeing’s reputation. I hope that at least puts an end to these petty tariffs and I hope Boeing comes to its senses and stops crying to the government and starts trying to actually compete. I think it’s unlikely given their precarious position, and I expect these next few years will see Airbus gain some ground due to this.

  9. Brett, sounds like this person meant to forward the email to someone, but inadvertently replied to it, and had a comment posted as a result. You may wish to delete the comment above out of courtesy for Mr. Spears’ privacy.

    1. Sorry, looks like my comment above didn’t post to the right part of the thread… I was referring to the comment above by Mr. Spears.

  10. I don’t like 737s at all. I have no desire to fly on the 737MAX, though I probably will because I don’t have a choice. I think Boeing should have come up with something that wasn’t based on a 60 year old design. Companies that produce products need to innovate or they will die and Boeing hasn’t really come up with anything new since the 787. It’s a poor record of R&D. Airbus will be able to eat their lunch for years.

  11. I am sorry to say that Boeing not communicating with the airlines and their pilots in training about this system being so important is what led to the crashes. However, I find it ironic that the two fatal accidents occurred on Airlines in Countries that don’t have the best safety records in the world. Hopefully, as the MAX returns to increased flying throughout the world, the training of the pilots will be more intense before the pilots actually take control of this aircraft.

    1. just remember that Boeing sold the MAX to airlines in those countries. If the MAX was so fragile that a “poorly trained” pilot could sink Boeing’s reputation, then they shouldn’t have sold it to them.
      And if you look at other airplanes that had design problems that were involved in accidents – such as the DC10- the argument didn’t ultimately work that it was “lesser” airlines that had issues because eventually the design problems impacted US airlines as well.

      If the problem is a design issue, then it will eventually impact a true cross-section of airlines.

  12. The first 737 started flying passengers in 1968 which was also the first year Chevrolet introduced the Camaro. GM built that original Camaro from ’68 until 2002 on the same F-body platform. Of course over those 34 years the look changed dramatically and the engine under the hood did too, not unlike the 737. Then the Camaro went on hiatus between 2002 and 2010 and was reintroduced as a completely new vehicle, on a new platform architecture. So the car you buy today is not just an updated version of the classic muscle car, even though it fills the same role as it did back in the 1960’s. This is where GM did something smart (imagine that) and Boeing did something dumb. Rather than do the right thing to leapfrog the competition and develop a new aircraft they did another generation of the 737. I like to think that up through the NG generation it was incremental improvement but with the MAX maybe it was rushed to market or plain hubris, but I’m not so sure it’s a better plane. More efficient, sure. Some of the avionics I’m sure are better. But a better all around aircraft for 2021 – I’m not so sure. The A320 series is old too and Airbus is making the same mistakes Boeing is…just their design is a decade+ newer. All I know is I have little desire to fly on any 3×3 narrow body plane and neither major aircraft manufacturer seems interested in a new design to make short to medium haul flying better.

    1. To be fair, the A320 is more like 20 years newer than the 737. Also, it was much easier to make the A320-neo than it was to make the 737MAX because of the ground clearance. While Airbus itself hasn’t come up with an updated A320, they did get their hands on Canadair’s C-Series, which is now the A220 and is a great plane to fly on.

  13. Let’s be honest, most people don’t have a clue who the manufacturer is that built the plane aside from a subsegment of frequent flyers or av geeks. A non-issue after just a few months.

    Secondly, I keep seeing people bash Boeing (and Airbus) for not coming out with a new narrowbody. Isn’t that really up to the airlines to ask for that? Aren’t they getting what they essentially want? I don’t see any of them pining for a higher cost narrowbody in the 3 x 3 config.

    1. I agree with the above comment. 99.95% of the traveling public who purchase airline tickets don’t know or care what type of A/C they are flying on. They are on that plane because of price and sometimes schedule. The 737 Max will allow airlines to be price competitive which is why they bought (or leased) them in the first place.

    2. I’d be curious to hear an estimate as to how much a “greenfield” design (brand new design, with new training requirements, etc) would have to save airlines (in terms of % savings per ASM or something like that, relative to current offerings, or relative to tweaks to existing models) in order to draw significant interest from airlines… Would it take a 5% reduction in costs? 10%? 20%? I’m not an engineer, but it would appear that until there’s a truly revolutionary invention or change in engines and/or airframes, savings large enough to justify a new design from the ground up are tough to achieve.

      At some point you do have to redesign a largely new plane from the ground up, incorporating lessons from past offerings, but that’s a very expensive and risky endeavor, not only for Boeing/Airbus but also for the airlines that purchase the plane (look at all the investment in training, parts, etc for the A380 that is now largely going to waste).

  14. Its doubtful boeing will learn its lesson. As they far further behind they have to take more shortcuts. Additionally the process of grounding the planes made clear the FAA is not the best safety org in the world. Those to factors, which the author said he would skip over, are outrageously dangerous to the future of air travel

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