The deadly 737 MAX remains grounded but test flights by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test pilots on Monday potentially move the plane closer to returning to passenger service. The U.S. was one of the last countries to ground the plane in March 2019 after it was involved in the second of two fatal crashes. The series of test flights are scheduled for multiple days and while the FAA warned there is still much to be addressed before the aircraft is cleared to fly, conducting test flights indicates that the agency is contented enough with the fixes Boeing has implemented up to now to move forward with the next stages of re-certifying the MAX.
The crashes of Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 claimed the lives of 346 people. A defect in the aircraft’s MCAS or flight control systems caused the aircraft to malfunction and repeatedly push the nose down unnecessarily. Pilots of the two flights fought hard to recover the flights but couldn’t avoid the tragedies set in motion by the defective aircraft.
“This puts the MAX one step closer to resuming passenger travel and should give air travelers cause for concern,” said Beasley Allen lawyer Mike Andrews who has been actively involved in the investigation of the Ethiopian Airlines crash and represents families of victims killed in the flight 302 crash. “Despite its assurances to sign off on every individual MAX jet, the FAA recently announced that it has no intention to change the review process for aircraft certification that placed this defective plane in the passenger service in the first place. The agency will continue relying on aircraft manufacturers to self-certify even in the face of Boeing’s documented deception about the MAX during the initial approval process.”
Following the flight 302 crash, Boeing repeatedly announced dates for returning the aircraft to passenger service. The leading U.S. planemaker had to walk back those announcements each time after more problems were discovered with the MAX. The manufacturing giant had hoped to get the green light for the aircraft before the end of 2019 but received pushback from the FAA’s administrator, Stephen Dickson, who was appointed in August 2019 after 19 months of the agency operating under only an acting administrator.
The FAA said the test flights would involve “a wide array of flight maneuvers and emergency procedures to assess whether the changes meet FAA certification standards” and that the flights would be conducted by both FAA and Boeing test pilots and engineers. It explained that “[wh]ile the certification flights are an important milestone, a number of key tasks remain.” It further stated that it “will lift the grounding order only after we are satisfied that the aircraft meets certification standards.”
The FAA has been publicly criticized for its role in approving the defective aircraft. Global regulators were among the earliest and staunchest critics. Many regulatory bodies in other countries have announced that their decision to return the MAX to passenger service will only come after they personally review the updates. They will no longer follow the decades’ long tradition of rubber-stamping the FAA’s approval.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic sent a crushing blow to the airline industry and forced many airlines to cut costs, Boeing began to see canceled contracts for purchases of its MAX aircraft. The most recent cancellation came Monday, the same day as the test flight when Norwegian Air Shuttle canceled its order for 97 Boeing jets including 92 MAX aircraft. Boeing has lost $18.7 billion and experts expect that number will continue to climb. Yet, rumors suggest one of Boeing’s top purchasers of the 737 MAX, Southwest Airlines, is considering replacing its entire fleet with the MAX despite its questionable safety performance.
Mike handles all types of aviation litigation for the firm, involving both civilian and military aircraft.