The Future of Boeing’s 737 MAX 8 Aircraft

Last October 29, a flight operated by the Indonesian carrier Lion Air crashed into the sea, killing everyone on board. On March 10 of this year, an Ethiopian Airlines flight crashed shortly after takeoff. Everyone on board both planes (a total of 346 passengers and crew) perished.

The incidents had several things in common. In both cases, there were inexperienced pilots or co-pilots (Lion Air had a reputation for this). Prior to both crashes, the pilots were unable to keep the plane steady as it nosedived to the ground. And in both cases, the plane was an almost-new 737 MAX 8 manufactured by Boeing.

All MAX 8 flights worldwide were halted one week after the Ethiopian Airlines crash. Boeing determined that the problem was caused by a sensor failure in the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a new system unique to the MAX 8. Boeing began work on a software fix for the plane, even as accusations abounded: blame was leveled at the manufacturer, the FAA, the airlines and just about everyone in sight. Boeing eventually took responsibility for the crashes, and they also discovered a second software flaw that complicated the process of fixing the 737 MAX.

As of this writing, the plane has not been re-certified as airworthy and no firm date has been set for its return to the skies (American recently canceled all 737 MAX flights through January 15). Let’s look at consumers’ most frequently asked questions about the plane:

Is the 737 MAX the same as the regular 737? Not at all. The regular 737-800 is an older and much safer plane (in fact, the 737 is the largest-selling commercial airliner ever made, and there are many different models). There are four versions of the 737 MAX: the 7, 8, 9 and 10.

Who flies the 737 MAX? Boeing says it has delivered 350 of the aircraft to 46 airlines. There were 69 in service in the U.S. at the time of grounding, mostly in the Southwest (31) and American Airlines (22) fleets; Air Canada was operating 20 of the planes as well.

When will the aircraft be back in service? At this point, no one knows. Airlines were first confident the planes would be ready for the summer travel season; when that didn’t happen, projections shifted to the fall. As noted above, the most optimistic scenario now is January. When (and if) it happens, we can be reasonably certain that the fixes on the aircraft will have been tested to the point of exhaustion.

Could an airline sneak a 737 MAX into the schedule out of desperation? Absolutely not. At least, not without risking fallout so large that it might put the company out of business.

How has this affected airline schedules? Naturally, the biggest effects have been felt at American and Southwest. AA has been forced to cancel 140 flights per day, and they estimate their total losses at $140 million. The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association recently sued Boeing, alleging that the company “deliberately misled” them about the 737 Max. Southwest claims that they have cancelled more than 30,000 flights since the plane was taken out of service, resulting in more than $100 million in lost wages for pilots.

What if I’m booking a flight and see the 737 MAX as the scheduled aircraft? Don’t panic—the schedule was probably drawn up during one of the periods when the airline was optimistic that the 737 MAX would return to the sky. What it might mean, though, is that your flight could possibly be canceled. The likelihood of cancellation depends largely on where the flight is originating. Flights departing from airline hubs are less likely to be canceled due to the availability of other aircraft close at hand; if you’re leaving from a remote location, you might not be so fortunate.

When the plane is re-certified, will it be safe to fly? As mentioned, the testing on the 737 MAX prior to re-certification is probably going to be extremely extensive, since everyone involved will be focused on avoiding further incidents. While the answer is almost certainly yes, it will be a matter of individual conscience. Like it or not, superstition will also enter into it, as will each person’s level of anxiety about flying. Thus far, market research has indicated that consumers are taking a “wait and see” attitude toward the aircraft, with many people saying they would wait at least six months before boarding one.

Safety aside, it’s best to remember that the 737 MAX can be an extremely uncomfortable plane. The Southwest version is relatively civilized, featuring between 32 and 33 inches of seat pitch in economy (the distance between a point on one seat and the same point on the seat in front of it); their regular 737-800 also has 32-33 inches. American is another story, with 30 inches of pitch on their 737 MAX—a tight squeeze even for a small person. The 737 MAX was designed as a high-density plane in the first place, and much depends on how many seats the airline wants to cram into it.

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