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The grounding of the Boeing 737 Max has turned out to be one of the most disruptive events in Canadian airline history from a regulatory, business and passenger perspective.
The crash of two brand-new Boeing 737 Max 8 passenger jets five months apart in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed a total of 346 passengers and crew.
On Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610, a B737 Max 8, crashed shortly after takeoff in Jakarta, Indonesia. Then on March 10, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, also a B737 Max 8, crashed shortly after takeoff in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
Three days later on March 13, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau ordered the grounding of 41 Boeing 737 Max 8s in service with three Canadian airlines – Air Canada (24 aircraft), WestJet (13) and Sunwing (4) – and banned any 737 Max aircraft from arriving, departing or overflying Canadian airspace.
Hours later, U.S. President Donald Trump grounded all Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft in service in the U.S., which idled a total of 385 jets.
Over the past five years, the airline industry has had a remarkably good safety record, but the two 737 Max accidents raised serious questions about Boeing’s safety culture and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) oversight.
The accidents triggered investigations by two independent watchdogs, a specially formed panel and committees in both chambers of the U.S. Congress.
When Stephen Dickson was sworn in as the new FAA administrator in Washington, D.C., in August, he made clear that the safety of the 737 Max was a top priority.
“I want to again be clear: FAA is a safety-driven organization and safety is my highest priority,” said Dickson in his swearing-in remarks. “This plane will not fly in commercial service until I am completely assured that it is safe to do so.”
Major U.S. airlines like American, Southwest and United have pulled the 737 Max from their flight schedules through March 2020; by that point, the fleet will have spent at least a year on the ground.
The Boeing 737 Max family — including the Max 7, Max 8, Max 9 and now Max 10 (debuted on Nov. 22, 2019) — is the fourth generation of the Boeing 737 which first flew on April 9, 1967.
The new family was born when record high fuel prices drove Airbus to update the A320 family with the launch of the A320neo (for New Engine Option) in December 2010. It incorporated more fuel-efficient CFM International LEAP-1A or Pratt & Whitney PW1000G turbofans.
Boeing held back as the A320neo gained sales, then jumped into the re-engine game when it selected the CFM LEAP-1B engine to power the Boeing 737 Max, which was announced in August 2011 and launched by Southwest Airlines with an order for 150 aircraft.
The LEAP-1B was a larger engine than the CFM56-7B turbofan on the Boeing 737 NG, and could not be mounted in the same position under the wing.
Boeing engineers solved this problem by extending the 737 Max nose gear leg eight inches and moving the LEAP-1B forward and upward relative to the leading edge of the wing to increase ground clearance.
Other design changes included advanced technology winglets, aft body aerodynamic improvements, and fly-by-wire spoilers that resulted in increased fuel efficiency, increased range, and a reduced noise profile.
The Max models burn 14 per cent less fuel than a similar-sized 737 NG model and have greater range to serve more distant city pairs.
The launch of the 737 Max was hugely successful, with Boeing holding orders for around 5,000 of the new jets by late 2019.
Southwest Airlines took delivery of the very first 737 Max 8 in May 2017 and Air Canada and WestJet received their first Max 8 jets at the end of 2017.
Lion Air Flight 610
Alarm bells rang across the aviation industry when Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea just 12 minutes after takeoff.
On Nov. 6, 2018, Boeing issued an Operations Manual Bulletin (OMB) to 737 Max customers, explaining that during manual flight a malfunction in the angle of attack (AOA) indicator could generate erroneous readings. This incorrect data could cause a new automated system on the aircraft to push the nose down using the elevator trim system, which if unchecked could result in an aggressive dive into terrain.
The next day, the FAA issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive (AD) echoing Boeing’s warnings, and outlining the corrective action to be taken in such an event.
This was the first time 737 Max pilots learned that Boeing had introduced a function called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) as an extension of the existing speed trim system, to improve aircraft handling characteristics at elevated angles of attack. It was designed to counteract an “upward pitching moment” generated by the LEAP-1B engine nacelles at high angles of attack.
The MCAS was introduced in order to make the Boeing 737 Max’s handling characteristics so similar to the NG versions that no simulator training was needed for a pilot transitioning between the NG and the Max.
Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302
Following its November OMB, Boeing began developing a software update for the MCAS with the goal of receiving FAA approval by the spring of 2019.
Then, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed seven minutes after takeoff in March, prompting China and other regulatory authorities to start banning the 737 Max from their skies.
The preliminary accident investigation revealed that Flight 302’s pilots knew about the MCAS, but even when they followed the prescribed emergency procedures, they couldn’t save the aircraft.
The accidents raised very serious questions about Boeing’s internal Functional Hazard Assessment (FHA) of the MCAS and why the FAA didn’t ground the 737 Max fleet after the Lion Air crash.
Airlines had just a few hours to comply when regulators ordered the grounding of the 737 Max, which was operating around 8,500 flights a week.
China grounded about 100 Max aircraft operated by domestic airlines and the U.S. grounded 72 aircraft flown by American, Southwest and United.
Thousands of flights were cancelled and hundreds of thousands of passengers had to be rebooked on other planes. Leases were extended on older aircraft scheduled to be retired, additional aircraft were leased, and growth plans tied to new Max deliveries were postponed.
Boeing cut 737 production at its Renton, Wash., plant from 52 to 42 aircraft a month, but could only deliver the 737 NG models, including P-8 Poseidon military aircraft based on the 737-800 NG.
This decision kept 10,000 workers employed at the plant and thousands more at its 900 suppliers, but this was a very expensive undertaking since Boeing only receives final payment on delivery.
By early December 2019, there were more than 350 new aircraft stored at Boeing Field, Paine Field and Grant County International Airport in Washington State, as well as Kelly Field near San Antonio, Texas. These included 16 new 737 Max 8s for Canada (12 for Air Canada, two for WestJet and two for Sunwing).
The 737-8 was certified as a derivative of the 737-800 NG under the FAA’s Changed Product Rule, which required Boeing to demonstrate compliance with Amendment 25-136 for significant areas of change.
The Indonesia accident report published in October 2019 explained that when Boeing developed the MCAS, its FHA process classified two hazards associated with “uncommanded MCAS” activation as “major.”
Since the hazards associated with an “uncommanded MCAS” event were not classified as “hazardous” or “catastrophic,” Boeing did not have to more rigorously analyze those failure conditions using its Failure Modes and Effects Analysis (FMEA) and Fault Tree Analysis (FTA).
However, in both 737 Max accidents, a single failure – a miscalibrated or damaged AOA sensor – initiated a fatal chain of events because there was no redundant system.
The use of FMEA would have been able to identify single-point and latent failures in the MCAS design that contributed to the accidents.
The Indonesia accident report also found that Boeing’s assumptions on flight crew initial response time, and the time it took for them to recognize and react to flight control failures, were very different from their actual behaviour when the MCAS activated.
Other reports published by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board and the Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) team were highly critical of the FAA certification of the 737 Max. Questions were raised about the amount of certification activities delegated by the FAA to Boeing’s Aviation Safety Oversite Office; how the technical documentation Boeing submitted to the FAA for the MCAS certification was inadequate, fragmented and incomplete; and how “human factors” testing did not go far enough.
Boeing takes action
Boeing began redesigning the MCAS shortly after the Lion Air crash.
The software was updated so that the MCAS would receive data inputs from two angle of attack sensors instead of one. Other changes included a limit on the number of times the MCAS could activate and a limit on the amount of downward force the MCAS could apply when a pilot was flying the aircraft manually.
Pilots will now be able to override MCAS at any time. In addition, when the Max returns to service, all production aircraft will have an activated and operable AOA disagree alert and an optional angle of attack indicator. Boeing said the AOA disagree alert will be available for activation on previously delivered aircraft.
In early August 2019, Seattle Times reporter Dominic Gates revealed that the FAA had discovered a potential flaw in the 737 Max flight control system during simulation tests in June that “spurred Boeing to make a fundamental software-design change.”
Gates reported that, “Boeing is changing the Max’s automated flight control system software so that it will take input from both flight control computers at once instead of using only one on each flight. That might seem simple and obvious, but in the architecture that has been in place on the 737 for decades, the automated systems take input from only one computer on a flight, switching to use the other computer on the next flight.”
This means the flight control system will now take input from both of the airplane’s flight computers, eliminating the risk of a fault in a single flight computer triggering an MCAS failure even if the two AOA sensors were functioning normally.
Boeing hasn’t released many details of the redesign to the media, but said its “robust MCAS software update” includes “three additional layers of protection” and provides “additional updates to the flight control computer software for further redundancy and safety.”
Max progress report
On Nov. 11, Boeing published a progress report that stated, “… Boeing continues to target FAA certification of the Max flight control software updates during this quarter. Based on this schedule, it is possible that the resumption of Max deliveries to airline customers could begin in December, after certification, when the FAA issues an Airworthiness Directive rescinding the grounding order.”
The positive news raised Boeing stock prices by 12 per cent, but it triggered a renewed tug-of-war with the U.S. regulator.
The next day, the FAA’s Dickson made it clear that the agency would not be a slave to Boeing’s timeline when he spoke to the Washington Aero Club.
“I’ve said this before but will continue to repeat it: The FAA’s return-to-service decision for the Max will be based solely on our assessment of the sufficiency of Boeing’s proposed software updates and pilot training that addresses the known issues for grounding the aircraft. We are not delegating anything. When we finally take the decision to return this aircraft to service, it will be the most scrutinized aircraft in history. It will also be one of the safest machines to ever take to the sky. I am not going to sign off on this aircraft until I fly it myself and am satisfied that I would put my own family on it without a second thought.”
Then the FAA went a step further and took control of the 737 Max delivery process when it announced that it will, “retain authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates of airworthiness for all 737 Max airplanes … (until) … at a minimum, Boeing has fully functional quality control and verification processes in place; delivery processes are similarly functional and stable; and Boeing’s 737 Max compliance, design, and production processes meet all regulatory standards and conditions for delegation and ensure the safety of the public.”
This put the FAA in firm control of when Boeing could deliver new 737 Max jets to airline customers and receive critical final payments.
Tasks still on the FAA’s “to do” list in late November included completing a critical review of Max design changes and associated training; human factors testing of the upgrades to the MCAS software; final simulator flight; Joint Operation Evaluation Board simulator rides for line pilots; and completion of the FAA Flight Standards Board’s report on the MCAS (which has to go out for public comment), as well as co-ordinating the rescinding of the Airworthiness Directive for the 737 Max with international regulators.
North of the border
In August 2013, WestJet announced a $6.3 billion order (at list prices) for 65 737 Max jets and then Air Canada followed in December with a $6.5 billion order for 61 737 Max aircraft.
WestJet initially ordered 25 Max 7s and 40 Max 8s, but later converted its order to 22 Max 7s, 20 Max 8s and 12 Max 10s.
Air Canada revised its order to 50 Max 8s and 12 Max 9s. Two Max 8s were delivered in 2017, 16 in 2018, and six in 2019 before the grounding.
Sunwing received the first of four 737 Max 8s from Air Lease Corporation in May 2018, with the latest touching down in Toronto days before the grounding.
When Lion Air Flight 610 crashed a year ago, Transport Canada immediately adopted the FAA’s AD which affected Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing. Within 24 hours of issuance of the Emergency AD for B737 Max operators, a common approach and solution had been established.
“Transport Canada shares Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing’s common interest in aviation safety. As such, our greatest concern was the swift dissemination of appropriate and accurate information to flight crews to enable them to apply proper procedures if such a similar event were to reoccur,” said Transport Canada in a written statement to Skies last December.
A WestJet spokesperson at the time said that, similar to other operators, WestJet had not been aware of the MCAS system and its operating characteristics before Boeing issued its OMB in November 2018. “Once aware, we took swift and decisive action, working with Transport Canada and the two other operators of the Max aircraft in Canada on a rapid revision to our aircraft flight manual, quick reference checklist, and to supplement our training with MCAS system information.”
Approximately 360 pilots at the three airlines, flying a total of 29 737 Max aircraft, were affected by the AD in mid-November 2018.
When the Canadian fleet was grounded on March 13, 2019, the 737 Max 8 represented 24 out of 400 aircraft in the Air Canada fleet (including Rouge and Air Canada Express); 13 out of 175 aircraft at WestJet and four out of about 40 aircraft at Sunwing. The groundings were welcomed by flight attendants and pilots, who preferred a response that erred on the side of caution.
As the grounding dragged on, each airline made long-term plans to idle their aircraft. Seventeen Air Canada Max 8s are currently stored in the desert at Pinal Airpark in Marana, Ariz.; five are in Windsor and two are in Montreal. WestJet’s Max 8s are parked in Vancouver (2), Calgary (6), Edmonton (2), Hamilton (1) and Kelowna (2), and Sunwing’s four Max 8s are in an active storage program at Mirabel.
WestJet explained to Skies that its 737 Max aircraft “continue to receive regular scheduled maintenance checks, the engines are run every seven days, and they are occasionally flown, with permission from Transport Canada, to maintenance facilities in Canada.”
Canadian airlines purchased 737 Max fleets to replace inefficient jets and drive future growth.
The Air Canada business plan called for 36 737 Max 8s by the summer of 2019, but due to “the grounding” and postponed deliveries it was left with 24 per cent fewer narrow-body jets than planned, “which exacted a toll from a financial, route, product, and I would say a human resource perspective,” said Air Canada president and CEO Calin Rovinescu.
“However, I’m confident that if regulators unground the aircraft near-term, our ongoing transformation will quickly regain its former trajectory,” he added.
Air Canada was able to cover about 95 per cent of its planned summer flying through a series of mitigation measures, including schedule changes, temporary route suspensions and sourcing alternative aircraft.
The Max 8 has been removed from the winter schedule through at least Feb. 14, 2020, and probably longer. While the aircraft have been sitting, the airline has installed dual Head Up Displays (HUDs) and WiFi on many planes.
Air Canada extended the leases of E190s and A320s, and Rouge and Air Canada Express (ACE) have also been covering some 737 Max routes.
Two Airbus A330s were wet leased from Qatar Airways last summer to link Montreal with Paris and Barcelona. This winter, the airline has wet leased two Omni Air International 767-200s to link Vancouver with Hawaii and Phoenix, and two Air Transat A330-200s to serve sun destinations from Montreal. Max 8 routes between Atlantic Canada and the U.K. were suspended.
Air Canada trained 400 pilots to fly its 24 737 Max 8s; they have been grounded, but maintain their currency with a visit to a full flight simulator every six months. Air Canada received the world’s first airline-operated Max full-flight simulator in 2017.
Once the grounding is lifted, Air Canada expects to take delivery of 26 additional Max 8s in 2020, including 12 completed by Boeing but never delivered in 2019, but “this is not an overnight process.”
To fill those cockpits, Air Canada needs to hire 350 more pilots, but hiring and training has to be carefully paced since most will be hired under “flow-through” agreements with ACE partners Jazz Aviation and Sky Regional, who will have to backfill a lot of pilots’ seats.
WestJet told Skies that the Boeing Max 8 made up about seven per cent of its fleet of 160 aircraft. “By adjusting some of our leases, utilizing the brand new 787 Dreamliner with 320 seats and adjusting the planned installations on some of our premium seats, we have been able to maintain about 98 per cent of our planned departures,” wrote an airline spokesperson.
“In addition to several changes to either flight times or substituting larger aircraft with fewer frequencies, we did have to make some difficult decisions to temporarily suspend a small number of routes where no alternative aircraft were available.
“These included one of our new routes between Halifax and Paris for the summer and the Max flying from Alberta to Hawaii this winter. From a flight perspective, the Max is a great aircraft as it is extremely fuel efficient and therefore offers a longer range than our 737 aircraft. Without the Max, we do not have aircraft available to offer this type of mid-range route,” added WestJet.
WestJet 737 Max pilots have maintained currency on the 737 NG, which safely operates 400 daily departures. When flights resume, WestJet will return to its normal aircraft delivery schedule, taking delivery of four new Max 8s in 2020, including two that should have arrived in 2019.
Normally, WestJet’s network team creates around two schedules a year (summer and winter), but uncertainty regarding the return of the 737 Max has caused the airline to update its schedule eight times since March 13, which has been a huge team effort.
Sunwing had four Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft with two pending delivery at the time of the grounding.
“Since the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8, our senior executive team at the airline has been working closely with Transport Canada, Boeing and the other airlines that operate this aircraft type on the necessary steps for re-entry,” said Rachel Goldrick, Sunwing’s senior corporate communications manager.
The airline’s Max 8 pilots have remained current operating the 737 NG and were employed during the summer flying 737-800 aircraft. Since the summer is Sunwing’s low season and staffing levels normally decrease, the airline didn’t have to furlough any of its pilots.
“In total, over 3,000 flights were affected during the summer period. In most instances all our routes were maintained, but with reduced frequency in some cases. We did have to suspend flying to Camaguey in Cuba and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico from Toronto for the summer season, but routes are operating again now.”
In other instances, Sunwing contracted flight services through third-party carriers to help customers maintain their summer travel plans.
Sunwing has removed the 737 Max 8 from its schedule until May 2020.
Return to service
The return to service date of the 737 Max is a moving target.
A key question will be how closely international aviation authorities such as Transport Canada and EASA will follow the FAA’s first steps.
Transport Canada said its final decision on returning the 737 Max to service will be based on its continuing independent review and validation of Boeing 737 Max 8 changes, while working closely with other regulators.
Once the fix has been certified by the FAA, “Transport Canada will validate the changes by conducting its own rigorous, risk-based review and will evaluate the impact on training requirements through the Joint Operational Evaluation Board (JOEB),” said the agency in a written response to Skies.
The JOEB is typically composed of regulatory personnel from the FAA, EASA and Transport Canada. The goal is to provide national aviation authorities with a harmonized basis for approval of pilot type rating training courses, differences training, proficiency checks, and currency requirements.
“As soon as the board has finished its work, we will apply its training adjustment recommendations for the return to service of the 737 Max 8 in Canada,” said Transport Canada.
In April, the Canadian regulator was invited to join the JATR team tasked with conducting a comprehensive technical review of the 737 Max flight control system. This gave Canadian technical experts an in-depth understanding of what went wrong. The agency has been analyzing the recommendations in the JATR report, published in October.
“Canadians can be assured that Transport Canada will not lift the current flight restriction of the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft until it is fully satisfied that all concerns have been addressed by the manufacturer and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and enhanced flight crew procedures and training are in place,” said the regulator.
“It would be premature to speculate when the department will be in a position to approve the return to service of the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft in Canada.”
All three Canadian 737 Max operators continue to be fully engaged with Boeing, Transport Canada and other regulators to understand how and when to safely reintroduce the Max.
WestJet said that before any passengers are flown, its 13 Max 8s will have the newly certified software installed and will undergo an evaluation flight. Pilots will also take any additional training that Transport Canada mandates.
WestJet also said it will be transparent in communicating which aircraft its guests have booked on, so they will always know if it’s a Max flight.
“Regardless of when the aircraft are approved to return to service, WestJet will provide nothing less than 100 per cent assurance to our guests and WestJetters that all processes, procedures and decisions will be made with safety at the forefront,” concluded the airline.
Editor’s note: Since this article was written, Boeing has announced plans to temporarily halt 737 Max production.
Kenneth I. Swartz has spent most of his career in international marketing and PR. An award-winning aviation journalist, he runs Aeromedia Communications, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.