It is the longest global grounding of an airliner in the history of civil aviation. The grounding was first put in place on March 13, 2019. But now it is due to be lifted. As expected the US aviation authority FAA published a so-called airworthiness directive advisory on November 18, detailing the requirements for the return of the Boeing 737 MAX to scheduled passenger service.
American Airlines is already offering flights with the Boeing aircraft starting on December 29 between New York and Miami in its computer reservation systems.
The jet’s problems started with two crashes and a total of 346 victims. After that Boeing’s bestseller 737 MAX was banned from global skies. It was found that malfunctions and deficiencies in the new automatic MCAS flight trimming system were major factors in both catastrophes, along with a lack of specific pilot training in how to handle it, due to cost concerns.
In addition, the 737 MAX crisis exposed a blatant lack of FAA oversight of Boeing. It came to light that the regulator had been delegating many of its oversight tasks to the company itself. These insights severely damaged both the reputation and business prospects of Boeing, traditionally the world’s largest supplier of passenger aircraft.
It also threw into doubt a finely tuned system of certification for new aircraft followed globally for decades, most notably the key role the FAA played in the process. The US aviation regulator’s verdicts were adopted by other certification authorities around the world almost automatically without any questions.
Grounded Boeing 737 MAX airplanes parked at Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Washington, in October 2019
The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) headquartered in Cologne has announced that it will follow suit in due time once the FAA has recertified the 737 MAX for service. The European authority has already indicated it was satisfied with the modifications made to the aircraft since its grounding, including to the software of the MCAS system. This means even European airlines would soon be able to fly their MAX jets.
Still, on top of the modifications already agreed upon, EASA insists on developing an additional synthetic sensor to allow onboard systems to confirm the aircraft’s angle of attack in flight. This extra development can take up to two years and is supposed to happen when the 737 MAX is already flying again.
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Getting the 737 MAX back in the air, despite dismal global passenger numbers due to the coronavirus, is also in the best interest of at least one big European customer.
“The MAX is key to our strategy going forward,” said Ryanair CEO Eddie Wilson recently during an online conference. “The earlier they come the better. We are ready, when we get the MAX coming we can lower our costs even more.”
The Irish low-cost carrier is the biggest European customer of the 737 MAX with 135 orders, though it is not one of the airlines that already operated any of the 385 aircraft delivered before the grounding. “We assume we will take delivery of our first MAXs in summer maybe,” said Wilson.
There is no urgency, however, among European customers to pick up any of the 470 aircraft currently stored in Seattle and its surroundings. Besides Ryanair, these include Norwegian Air Shuttle with 110 orders, Turkish Airlines (75) and TUI Group (72).
“Due to the virus, there is no rush for anyone besides Boeing,” said Sean Broderick, an aviation safety expert for US industry portal Aviation Week. It is especially important to Boeing since they only get paid at handover; before that the stored aircraft only costs the manufacturer money.
In the meantime, many customers have canceled orders. Out of original almost 4,400 commitments, a total of 1,043 have now been removed from the books after cancellations or switches to other models. In October alone, the MAX order volume shrunk by 448 aircraft.
Since the grounding Boeing kept producing, though assembly was halted for five months. “Of those 470 stored MAXs, about 60 don’t currently have a customer,” stated Broderick, “but the airlines want them as they are more efficient than current models.” The aircraft is even supposed to serve long-haul routes. Canadian carrier WestJet, for example, wants to deploy it on the North Atlantic.
First, all pilots currently certified for the 737 MAX have to go through additional training as soon as procedures, requirements and content have been confirmed by authorities. In total it will comprise five hours, of which two hours will be spent in a simulator and one in a briefing. At large airlines, this process can take months. American Airlines wants to qualify 1,700 pilots by December and train the remaining 2,500 by March 2021.
Second, specific focus has to be put not only on pilots at big Western airlines but also on those flying for airlines in other countries as the accidents, which happened in Indonesia and Ethiopia, prove. “They have to look more at global pilot standards and how they cope with the MAX philosophy. That is a lesson learnt,” said Broderick.
Finally, there is the challenge for airlines to get their own staff and passengers to comfortably settle into the thought of flying safely now in the tarnished 737 MAX. “For some passengers, the problem of having to board a MAX might be more acute than the coronavirus,” said Broderick.
American Airlines is already planning demo flights for staff and frequent fliers. MAX visits at airports and QA sessions with pilots and mechanics are being planned. European operators such as TUIfly in Germany also have plans to present the 737 MAX to the public as an aircraft that is (now) safe to fly.
Though its maiden flight was on February 9, 1969, the Boeing 747 actually entered commercial service nearly a year later with a Pan Am flight from New York to London. This first flight was originally scheduled for the 21st, but was delayed due to mechanical problems. With a nearly seven-hour delay — and replacement plane — history was made when on January 22, 1970 the 747 took off at 1:52 a.m.
The first Boeing “jumbo jet” had a list price of $23 million according to contemporary reports. It was a true American invention and was assembled just outside Seattle in Everett, Washington, had 11 doors and room for up to 362 passengers. But it was the amazing roomy interiors with high ceilings that captured the imagination of travelers from around the world and made it so special.
Within a month of its first flight, Pan Am added more flights connecting San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Hong Kong. Soon other international airlines rolled out their own 747s. By June 1970, Boeing had orders for nearly 200 of the aircraft. The comfortable planes attracted the rich and famous. Here Gloria Swanson is seen in the 1974 disaster film “Airport 1975” also staring Charlton Heston.
At the time not everyone was sold on the idea. Many feared there was no market for such a large plane and that it would be impossible to sell so many tickets to fill all the seats. Others worried that airports were unfit to handle the increased number of passengers all at once; how could so much luggage be loaded and unloaded? Still Joseph Sutter, head of the 747 design team, stuck to his plans.
To start the “second jet age” the new 747s needed to be big, but also powerful. Its four engines were not made by Boeing but by Pratt Whitney, a subsidiary of United Aircraft Corporation. They were the most powerful jet engines ever produced up until that time and generated an amazing 46,000 pounds of thrust to propel it 600 miles an hour — just what was needed for long transatlantic flights.
At first most airports were not prepared for such a massive jet, one that was well over twice the size of the Boeing 707. Runways needed to be lengthened and reinforced for the plane’s 350 tons. Others needed to invest millions in new, bigger check-in areas, more waiting room and baggage capacity. One consequence of bigger planes was the entrenchment of the hub-and-spoke model for airlines.
Air Force One, the American president’s wings, is the most famous 747 to ever take off. In reality two 747-200s, the aircraft is only called AFO when the president steps onboard. Delivered in 1990, the planes are specially equipped and can be used as a flying White House. Though their paintjob is instantly recognizable, they are soon to be replaced with new 747-8s at a cost of over $3 billion.
Over the years the plane has gone through updates. Gone are the bars and many of the other luxuries that once filled parts of the jet like grand pianos. Versions were lengthened and seats were reconfigured. The 747-400 can squeeze in 524 passengers. Still airlines looked elsewhere. In the US Delta was the last company to fly the passenger giants and even they retired the last one in December 2017.
In other parts of the world, the 747 is still in commercial service. British Airways has the largest fleet in operation. Yet slowly but surely after years of setting passenger records, the original jumbo jet also known as the “Queen of the Skies,” has continued to fall out of favor compared with newer, more fuel efficient planes. In the last decade orders have been low even for cargo versions.
In 2019, no new 747s were ordered at all, though seven were still delivered. In all, over 1,550 have been made in the past five decades. Nonetheless, the heyday of the second jet age and Pan Am’s double-deck glamour days is still alive at the Pan Am Lounge in Berlin. Still decorated in its classic 1970s style, today it’s a private club full of nostalgia and can be rented out as a party location.