The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made two significant announcements regarding Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX aircraft on Wednesday, drawing mixed reactions from airlines, Boeing, and industry experts.
FAA Puts Brakes on Boeing’s Plans to Ramp Up MAX Production
In the first decision, the FAA halted Boeing’s plans to expand production of the 737 MAX family of jets at its Renton, Washington factory beyond the current 31 per month rate.
The move comes as Boeing struggles to stabilize production after the 2019-2020 grounding of MAX jets following two deadly crashes. Ramping up now would interfere with Boeing’s commitment to focus on safety reforms, the FAA said.
“Boeing has not met all certification plan milestones to expand the production rate,” the FAA said in a statement. Expanding too fast “could strain Boeing’s resources and introduce greater risks in manufacturing,” the agency said.
Boeing expressed disappointment at the FAA’s decision, saying it is ready to boost monthly output:
“We will continue to work transparently with the FAA and our global regulators on production rate planning,” Boeing said.
The rate freeze threw cold water on Boeing’s goal to get back to producing 38 MAX monthly by the end of 2024. It will also impact major suppliers like engine maker CFM International.
Airlines Clear Regulatory Hurdle to Resume MAX 9 Flights
Also on Wednesday, the FAA approved instructions for airlines to inspect grounded Boeing 737 MAX 9 jets, paving the way for the aircraft to return to passenger flights.
The MAX 9 model has been grounded for 17 months following separate engine incidents on United and Alaska Airlines flights.
“We’re committed to addressing all of the FAA’s questions to meet their expectations and the requirements they set forth,” Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun told lawmakers last week.
Once airlines complete required maintenance and system checks, monitored test flights, and new pilot training, the MAX 9 will be cleared for takeoff again.
United Airlines said it expects to resume MAX 9 flights as early as next week:
“We’re eager to see the MAX 9 return to service and we’re working closely with Boeing and the FAA to make that happen,” United spokesperson Leslie Scott said.
Analysts say the move will help cash flow and margins at both Boeing and airlines like United and Alaska that fly the MAX 9.
But families of victims of previous 737 MAX crashes said the MAX 9 should not fly without significant hardware and software upgrades. Consumer groups have also voiced safety concerns about the aircraft.
“The MAX planes are inherently unstable and require a software bandaid to fly,” said Michael Stumo, father of a woman killed in the 2018 Ethiopian Airlines crash.
The threat of new investigations or resistance from hesitant passengers adds further uncertainty for airlines counting on the fuel-efficient MAX to serve busy summer travel schedules.
Alaska Air said it expects a $150 million hit from having MAX 9 planes grounded since last March.
Background: A Brief History of the 737 MAX Crisis
The Boeing 737 MAX entered service in 2017 as the latest generation of Boeing’s bestselling 737 aircraft, featuring more fuel-efficient engines.
But the new engines changed the aerodynamic qualities of the jet, requiring the addition of a flight control system called MCAS to prevent the plane’s nose from rising too sharply.
In October 2018 and March 2019, two 737 MAX crashes – Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines 302 – killed 346 people.
Investigators blamed a faulty angle-of-attack sensor that erroneously engaged the MCAS system and pointed the planes downward into fatal nosedives.
The crashes threw Boeing into crisis – airlines grounded MAX planes worldwide, deliveries halted, costs soared as Boeing redesigned software and pilot training programs.
In late 2021, after Boeing overhauled MCAS, the FAA approved the MAX to return to commercial service – except for the MAX 9 version, which remained grounded over separate mechanical problems not related to MCAS or flight controls.
As Boeing tries to turn the corner in 2024, this week’s split decisions by the FAA ensure continued turbulence surrounding the company’s money-making single-aisle franchise.
What’s Next for Boeing and the Airlines
Looking ahead, airlines hope returning the efficient MAX 9 to service this year will provide much-needed seats and profits to satisfy booming travel demand.
And Boeing’s cash flow depends on sustaining a healthy 737 production rate at 31 per month in the near term.
But this week’s developments make Boeing’s path to fully restoring production and its reputation with regulators far from smooth. New MAX safety incidents could further delay the company’s recovery.
|Return to Service Timeframe
|Approved for flight by FAA after inspections completed
|As early as February 2024
|Flying since Q4 2021
Getting the larger MAX 10 and MAX 7 models certified and into service remains crucial to Boeing’s aircraft portfolio strategy in the years ahead.
The threat of new congressional hearings or additional investigations following this week’s mixed messages from the FAA could also keep the MAX and controversy surrounding Boeing in an unwanted spotlight throughout 2024.
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