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Boeing 737 MAX: What Is Safety, Anyway?

Fear not, weary traveler—the now infamous Boeing 737 MAX has been cleared for takeoff.

The intense scrutiny the aircraft has faced and the updates it has received as a result of investigations following two fatal crashes will undoubtedly make the MAX safer to fly than ever before. We should, however, be cognizant of the lessons we can learn from the deeper issues that have emerged over the course of this controversial story—as well as ones that might be emerging from the groundings of the Pratt & Whitney engines attached to United Airlines-operated Boeing 777s.

What happened?

When Boeing introduced a revamped version of its popular 737 aircraft, it advertised bigger, better engines, improved fuel burn (efficiency) and upgraded seating capacity. The company branded its new version, “737 MAX.”

The plane was brought to market quickly in order to outcompete Airbus’ A320neo. Airbus had been outselling the previous-generation 737 and by some accounts was eviscerating Boeing’s market on narrow-bodied, medium to long range aircraft with better fuel burn.

Boeing’s new model seemed carefully updated to stay within the specifications of the aircraft’s certificate which would allow pilots already familiar with the 737 to avoid significant additional training before stepping onto the flightdeck and taking off.

When Boeing finished the new design—fresher technology upgrades to a decades-old aircraft—the updated 737 met the competition. The company’s order numbers took off; deliveries began in 2017.

By spring 2019, two Boeing 737 MAX crashes—Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302—had killed 346 people. All flights on the 737 MAX were cancelled. The 387 delivered MAX aircraft were grounded for more than a year and a half, reportedly causing billions in losses for airlines that had made purchases—not to mention for Boeing itself.

Why did it happen?

The amount of lift an airplane achieves is determined in part by the angle of the plane’s wings against the air it encounters. This is called the angle of attack (AoA). When the airplane’s wing exceeds a critical angle of attack, the airplane stalls.

The crashes caused by these stalls were found to involve the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS.) The MCAS is a system added to the 737 MAX to compensate for a change in balance and handling of the aircraft caused by larger, lower and more forward-positioned engines.

Because of the 737 MAX’s upgraded engines and their new positioning on the wing, the airplane has a slight nose-up moment under certain conditions. The MCAS compensated for the new placement of the engines by pitching the plane down when the AoA sensor determined the plane was pitching up too much.

Boeing denies MCAS is an anti-stall system, rather it is designed to warn against a stall. The system is supposed to help pilots recover without the pilot needing to activate it. It does this by relying on an AoA sensor’s data to tell it when the aircraft is nearing a stall condition.

During the aircraft’s certification process, during which each system’s risk is evaluated separately by the FAA, the MCAS earned a “high-risk” categorization. For any system critical to flight control, like the MCAS, it’s standard to have redundancies built in.

The 737 MAX has two AoA sensors to determine when the pitch of the plane nears a stall, but the MCAS only used data from one of them. The plane’s new system didn’t have a redundancy where it needed one. If the sensor failed, the MCAS could be adversely affected in a big way. But the FAA didn’t catch this. Much of the certification process is delegated by the FAA to manufacturers themselves—purportedly to save money.

The FAA also didn’t catch that the original design documents for the MCAS apparently indicated the horizontal stabilizer would only be moved 0.6 degrees at a time when actually it was moved 2.5 degrees at a time—a relatively massive difference that would theoretically cause a significant change of the aircraft’s pitch attitude. Faulty readings and overpowered changes are apparently exactly what happened in both fatal crashes.

There’s more to the story. The day before it crashed, during its penultimate flight, the MAX aircraft involved in the Lion Air flight 610 crash reportedly presented this faulty reading problem. A deadheading pilot, not on-duty but seated on the flight deck, suggested turning off switches that control power to the automatic horizontal stabilizer trim control. This fixed the issue by taking away the MCAS’ control of the pitch.

Unfortunately, even though the captain reported the problem to the airline, after a maintenance check the plane was cleared for takeoff. The next flight crew was unaware.

But why would two experienced pilots, each with thousands of hours of experience flying the 737, not know to turn power to these automated systems off?

Perhaps because the pilots didn’t know the MCAS existed. The pilots may not have understood why the aircraft was trimming itself erroneously if they didn’t know about the system. The Flight Crew Operations Manual (FCOM), the Boeing-authored document for training pilots who fly the airplane, reportedly didn’t mention the MCAS. Pilots weren’t aware of the system when flying the plane. Pilots flying the plane quite possibly didn’t know that an automatic system would, without their authorization or input, affect the behavior of the controls they use to fly the plane.

After the first fatal crash in October 2018, the FAA issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive regarding the elevator trim stabilizers on the plane—the control surface that the MCAS manipulates to control the airplane’s pitch—but no mention of the MCAS was made in the directive. Boeing issued correspondence identifying the MCAS following the first crash, noting that it operated irrespective of pilot input.

The crash report findings from both tragic flights illustrated complex issues leading to the crashes, but clearly indicated that the MCAS and its shortcomings were involved in both of them. Boeing, though silent at first on its responsibility, eventually admitted—following the second crash—that the MCAS was to blame and pledged to fix it, with CEO Dennis Muilenburg writing, “It’s our responsibility to eliminate this risk. We own it and we know how to do it.”

As the MAX groundings caused financial chaos for airlines and Boeing itself, evidence came to light suggesting Boeing may have intentionally hidden safety risks in order to prioritize profit. Worse, the FAA’s prediction following the first crash that flaws in Boeing’s system could cause additional crashes in the coming years received no follow-up until the second crash occurred.

Many in the aviation industry—or paid by it—blamed foreign pilots’ inadequate training or lack of experience. They made a good point: A plane is often only as safe as the pilot flying it. Indeed, evidence suggests pilots in both cases responded in accordance with manufacturer training guidelines. So who is to blame? Training protocols or pilot judgment?

It’s worth noting that expert 737 pilots I spoke to off the record who are familiar with the crash reports say they considered the 737 MAX itself safe even after the crashes revealed flaws. What wasn’t safe, they agree, is the lack of training and transparency provided to pilots—based on Boeing’s training materials.

The penultimate crew (which was assisted by a third, off-duty pilot) of the aircraft of the Lion Air flight 610 crash discovered a possible fix to the problem that many believe could have prevented both tragedies.

Pilots and aviation enthusiasts agree complacency with automation on flight decks may have played a part. While the danger of complacency in any flight deck should never be understated, the failure of Boeing to provide pilots with adequate information and training material and failure by FAA to catch these failures illustrate systematic problems that go beyond a lack of pilot attention to automated systems.

How was it fixed?

In the Final Committee Report on the 737 MAX, investigators lambasted both Boeing and the FAA and identified production pressures, a lack of cultural safety and ignorance of clear safety issues as contributing factors to the MAX’s fatal flaws, calling for steps to be taken to change the culture to one of safety. The report, made public in September 2020, preceded the MAX’s official ungrounding by the FAA by only two months. As of November 2020, the MAX has been cleared for takeoff once again.

In those November 2020 Airworthiness Directives, the FAA issued guidance to return the 737 MAX to service. The MCAS’ lack of redundancy has been corrected as both AoA indicators are now linked to the system. Additional precautions are in place to alert pilots to the operational status of the MCAS and additional safety issues identified in the multitude of investigations into the overall safety of the 737 MAX have been resolved with repair guidance issued and reportedly complied with. Pilots are now required to receive additional training on the MAX’s systems, including the MCAS, before returning to the flight deck. The MCAS can now be turned off completely.

U.S. airlines and others have quietly started flying the aircraft along their routes again amid speculation that customer confidence may cause significant ongoing issues for airlines and Boeing alike. The ongoing global Covid-19 pandemic continues to dampen travel, so it may be some time before it becomes clear about how the public will respond.

Earlier this year Boeing agreed to pay $2.5 billion to settle criminal charges from the U.S. Justice department alleging that the company hid information from officials. The company has acknowledged its wrongdoing and some of the money is reportedly for the families of the victims.

Is it safe now?

By endorsement of the FAA, Boeing and its pilots, the 737 MAX has been determined as safe to fly. But safe pilots fly planes safely and part of being a safe pilot is being well-trained and well-informed as to the full functionality of an aircraft’s systems. With better, more comprehensive training, MAX pilots are now informed and equipped to fly the plane more safely than they were before.

Qualified 737 MAX pilots I spoke to at major U.S. airlines have undergone the additional training now required by the FAA and assured me they have full faith in the 737 MAX and consider it a “mighty” airplane, calling it, “absolutely safe.” CBS News reported Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenberg has claimed that he trusts in the safety of the 737 MAX so much that he’d put his family in one, “without any hesitation.” The head of the FAA, Steve Dickson, apparently told Reuters he is “100% confident” in the 737 MAX. Both men acknowledged Boeing’s need to rebuild public trust and a culture of safety.

But, as always, customers have a choice whether or not to take flights on the Boeing 737 MAX—right? Sure, sort of. Many passengers book travel weeks in advance and airlines may decide which planes to use where on an often nightly basis. It doesn’t help that the MAX branding is pretty subtle. While Boeing has said they won’t rebrand the MAX and airlines are saying they’re transparent about which planes are the MAX and which aren’t, the numbering and naming system is complex and navigating the details can be confusing. It’s not so easy to get to decide at the last minute after studying the fine print on an electronic boarding pass.

What about the 777?

Two Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engines attached to Boeing airplanes failed in-flight on the same weekend in February 2021. Though the problems at the core of each of the PW4000 and the 737 MAX issues are entirely different, Boeing’s response was markedly different: In this case, the company recommended grounding all of the engines until the FAA develops the appropriate inspection protocol and schedule. Note, however, that Boeing is not the manufacturer of the engine itself. Pratt & Whitney has not issued a grounding recommendation at time of writing, stating only that it is fully cooperating with and supporting the NTSB investigations.

It’s nonetheless reassuring to hope that Boeing’s suggestion and airlines’ subsequent decisions to ground the applicable aircraft shows the industry attitude toward safety is changing, but several important elements of the still-developing story might create a familiar pattern.

The February 2020 investigations of a United Boeing 777 engine failure over Denver and a similar Boeing 747 engine failure in the Netherlands are ongoing; we don’t have all the details yet. However, preliminary reports indicate that fan-blade metal fatigue has already been cited by authorities as a significant factor in the engine failures.

One-time thing? Maybe not. In 2018, a like-model Pratt & Whitney engine on a United Airlines-operated Boeing 777 failed due to metal fatigue. The final NTSB report suggested the issue had to do with inadequate inspection standards from Pratt & Whitney. Sound familiar? Like Boeing, the FAA regulates Pratt & Whitney.

An incident on a 2020 Japan Airlines 777 with a Pratt & Whitney PW4000 engine also seems to have involved fan-blade metal fatigue. Japan’s transportation authority has yet to complete the investigation, but has imposed a temporary restriction in flights involving the engine. In the U.S., the FAA has issued an Airworthiness Directive requiring inspection of the engine blades before the engines may return to service. In other words, the engines have been determined safe after proper inspection.

What is safety, anyway?

Aviation safety statistics tell us that fatality by commercial airplane accident remains extremely unlikely worldwide by most standards, but in a world that seems ever more dangerous, how do we decide what is and is not safe?

It’s common knowledge among pilots that most aviation incidents and accidents happen at least in part as a result of human error. This isn’t always the case and many accidents are the result of several complicating factors. Still, flight instructors often use crash reports and statistics as teaching material for student pilots; much is to be learned from any crash in which human decision making led to the loss of life. Often, reports show us that crashes are caused by a series of wrong decisions creating a snowball effect.

This seems to hold true in the case of the two fatal MAX crashes. The reports indicate a complex series of reasons for failure. Pilot error may not be the main or only cause of the critical failures (or a cause at all), but errors made long before the pilots came to work were still human.

The U.S. Congressional hearings and report on the MAX, in addition to featuring prominent politicians and pilots blaming or defending dead pilots, also featured the voices of family members of crash victims, who pointed out the cultural emphasis on profit over safety at Boeing may have led to corner-cutting that ultimately cost lives. The now-settled criminal charges that followed and Boeing’s admittance of the errors support this conclusion.

Where aircraft systems can be augmented and repaired, manuals can be supplemented relatively easily and training can be mandated, culture and corporate priority aren’t so quick to change. The safety of the 737 MAX is undoubtedly improved, but what about the motivations Boeing and the FAA have to make the process of designing these systems safer in the future?

More than raising questions about the safety of the aircraft design, the MAX controversy brought forth many important questions about air travel safety and the global public’s trust in airplane manufacturers, airlines and aircraft crews overall. But the controversy surrounding the crashes and the ensuing fallout leads us to ask bigger questions about how we as a society value our safety when traveling around the globe.

What is safety? How do we evaluate the risks we take when traveling and how can we do better to protect everyone? What are the dangers we face when our systems value profit over human life? How can we guard against systematic failures like these in the future?

The unfortunate reality is that there are no clear answers. The Covid-19 pandemic has raised similar questions about how we as a society value human life over continued profit margins and how differently our perceptions of risk are from our neighbors.

In the last year, many have rightfully questioned the safety in leaving home at all. Many haven’t. Protests have erupted over mask wearing, the legitimacy of concern and the restrictions governments have put in place to combat the spread of the virus.

Like Covid-19’s, the MAX’s story could well illustrate how our corporate culture’s dangerous “profit first, apologize later” attitude doesn’t actually protect anyone—including shareholders. (Just take a look at Boeing shareholders circa March, 2020.)

Bottom Line

For all its many flight hours and passengers carried, the 737 MAX has had relatively few accidents, so statistically it’s likely to appear quite safe. Considering its recent spotlighted investigation by an alphabet soup of agencies, governments and journalists, the 737 MAX might actually be safer than most planes that haven’t received nearly the same scrutiny.

Our governments’ established systems for evaluating the safety of an aircraft and its crew members’ performance have determined that the Boeing 737 MAX is ready to be returned to service. But how should we measure trust when the story one troubled aircraft has to tell is as much about corporate culture and lack of effective government oversight as it is a faulty sensor?

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Boeing's 737 Max aircraft under scrutiny again

By Theo Leggett
Business correspondent, BBC News

Image source, Getty Images

Little more than six months after Boeing's 737 Max was cleared to fly again by US regulators, the aircraft finds itself under intense scrutiny once again.

The discovery of a potential electrical problem last month led to the renewed grounding of more than 100 aeroplanes, belonging to 24 airlines around the world.

Deliveries of many more new aircraft have been suspended. Boeing and the US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration say they are working closely to address the issue.

But the affair has given new energy to critics who claim the 737 Max was allowed back into service prematurely - and that issues which could have contributed to two fatal crashes have not been fully analysed or addressed.

Those critics include a high profile whistle-blower, Ed Pierson, who has already sought to link allegedly poor production standards at the 737 factory with electrical defects on the crashed planes, which he claims may have been implicated in both accidents.

According to Boeing and the FAA, the problem first became apparent during testing of a newly manufactured 737 Max 8, which had yet to be delivered to its owner. It was found that electrical power systems on the aircraft were not working correctly.

The fault was traced to poor electrical bonding, where panel assemblies that were also intended to conduct electricity and form part of a connection with the frame of the aircraft were not doing so effectively.

This meant that some components on the plane, including the pilots' main instrument panel and a standby power control unit, were improperly grounded, or earthed.

According to the FAA, this could potentially "affect the operation of certain systems, including engine ice protection, and result in loss of critical functions and/or multiple simultaneous flight deck effects, which may prevent continued safe flight and landing".

The flaw, then, was a dangerous one. The FAA was worried that over time other aircraft, which were already in service, could develop the same condition. It issued an Airworthiness Directive on 30 April stipulating that affected aircraft should be modified before being permitted to fly again.

On the face of it, there is nothing to link these flaws with the errant flight control software - known as MCAS - that triggered the loss of two planes, in Indonesia and Ethiopia, claiming the lives of 346 people.

In each of those accidents, flawed data from a faulty sensor prompted MCAS to force the nose of the aircraft down repeatedly, when the pilots were trying to gain height, ultimately pushing it into a catastrophic dive.

According to Chris Brady, a pilot who runs a website and a video channel devoted to technical aspects of the 737, "the problem is unrelated to MCAS or any other previous Max problem".

It occurred, he says, because in early 2019, Boeing changed the way panels were attached on parts of the plane. It was seen as a very minor change, so it was not notified to regulators.

"There was nothing, let's say, unethical about that", he explains. "Prima facie, this appears to be an honest mistake, the implications of which have just been unearthed".

But for Mr Pierson, a former senior manager on the 737 production line, the new electrical issues are a symptom of something more serious.

Image source, Getty Images

During congressional hearings into the crashes involving the Max, he claimed that in 2018 the factory in Renton, near Seattle had become "dysfunctional" and "chaotic", as pressure increased to produce new aircraft as quickly as possible.

Earlier this year, he published a report that explicitly linked alleged production pressures with electrical anomalies and flight control system problems that occurred on both crashed aircraft prior to the accidents.

He suggested that defects in the wiring of both aircraft could have contributed to the erroneous deployment of the MCAS software, alongside sensor failures already implicated in the crashes.

He now says the disclosure of new problems reinforces his case.

"Yes, MCAS caused the airplanes to pitch down and crash", he explains. "But it was an electrical system malfunction that likely caused the angle of attack sensor to send faulty data to MCAS".

Mr Pierson believes that the 20-month recertification process which cleared the 737 Max to fly again focused on software design and pilot training, but failed to address the impact of production standards at the factory.

As a result, he says, it is "no surprise that new discoveries linked to 737 Max production defects continue to come to light" on an aircraft described by the FAA's Administrator Steve Dickson as "the most scrutinised transport aircraft in history".

Mr Pierson says he has written to the US Transportation Secretary, Pete Buttigieg, requesting a meeting to outline his concerns, but has not heard back.

Boeing emphatically denies any connection between production standards in the 737 factory and the two accidents involving the 737 Max.

It says: "The Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents have been reviewed by numerous governmental and regulatory entities, and none of those reviews has found that production conditions in the factory contributed to the accidents."

Image source, Getty Images

Dai Whittingham is chief executive of the UK Flight Safety Committee, a group of organisations, including airlines and regulators, which promotes safety in commercial aviation.

He says that a direct link between the two accidents and the recently-discovered electrical flaws is "a hard connection to make".

But on one key point he appears to agree with Mr Pierson. "These issues are separate in how they've arisen", he explains, "but they may well have stemmed from the same corporate culture, with a focus on saving time and keeping costs down over maintaining quality".

The allegation that Boeing prioritised profit over safety in the run up to the two accidents is not new - and indeed was made by prosecutors when announcing a $2.5bn settlement with the aerospace giant earlier this year.

The company says it has learned many lessons as a result of the Ethiopian Airlines flight ET302 and Lion Air 610 accidents. It says it has "made fundamental changes" and continues "to look for ways to improve".

"Boeing is committed to restore trust, and we'll do it one airplane at a time," it said.

People within the company insist the changes which led to the current problems were not motivated by time or cost savings.

It's not clear how long the affected aircraft will remain grounded. The actual modifications required are expected to be relatively simple and are only expected to cost about $2,250 (£1,600) per aircraft. But the FAA is understood to be asking for detailed analysis to be sure all potential concerns have been dealt with.

With the scrutiny the 737 Max is under, neither Boeing, nor the FAA, can afford to make a mistake.

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The Boeing 737 Max is flying again. Not every airline wants to admit it


The software has been adjusted.

more Technically Incorrect

The pilots have, it's said, been re-familiarized with its workings.

So despite the misgivings and legal appeals of some, the Boeing 737 Max has again been flying passengers for some six weeks, without a hint of an incident. Without even word of some mass -- or even tiny -- passenger boycott, either.

American Airlines was the first to fly it -- between La Guardia and Miami. United Airlines has put it back in the air too.

As The Points Guy reported, Southwest Airlines is returning it to passenger service in March. Even the Europeans are slowly bringing it back.

All, then, is well. 

Indeed, the major American airlines are absolutely not hiding the fact that the plane is in the air. When you book, you see in the flight details that the plane is a 737 Max.

It seems, though, that not every airline is quite so enthusiastic. Or, perhaps, confident.

I was moved, you see, by the approach of Cayman Airways. It appears taxed by the idea that its Maxes may be flying passengers again.

The Seattle Times' Dominic Gates spotted the airline's announcement for the return of the Max. Which, oddly, doesn't mention the word Max.

Instead, it's an invitation to the public to "come and walk through the National Airline's brand new Boeing 737-8 jet."

I'm not sure how reassuring walking through the jet might be. Yes, the overhead bins are bigger. It is, though, the plane whose inadequate software and suspect corporate behavior led to the death of 346 people.

As a commenter to the airline's tweeted entreaty mused: "Nothing brings attention to an aircraft your marketers want to disguise like a public aircraft tour."

You might think, though, that once you click the link provided by Cayman, the airline will reveal what it's talking about.

Well, no. There is absolutely no mention of it being the Max. There is the offer of watching it take off and land, however.

One can understand the marketers' dilemma, of course. But isn't it exacerbating any potential nervousness by inviting customers to tour a plane and hiding which plane it actually is? Especially if it's a plane that was associated with so much pain and scandal.

Customers really, really don't like being duped. Cayman might as well have invited them to the Boeing 737 Euphemism.

Imagine what any cabin crew might have to deal with if a passenger who's troubled by what happened to the Max discovers only too late what plane they're on.

It's true that American Airlines also offered a tour of the plane as it hurried to bring it back.

Yet once the plane is broadly flying perhaps it's best to act normally -- honestly, even -- and hope the disasters are in the past.

You'd think airlines would already have enough to worry about.

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FLYING AIR INUIT'S BOEING 737-200 COMBI! Montreal to Puvirnituq (4K)

Two years after it was banned from flying passengers, the Boeing 737 Max has been cleared to return to the skies in much of the world. As part of their decisions, aviation safety agencies in the US, Brazil, Canada, Australia, the UK, the European Union and elsewhere have ordered Boeing and airlines to make repairs to a flight control system blamed for the two crashes that led to the ban; update operating manuals; and increase pilot training. China, the world's second-largest market for commercial air traffic, is still prohibiting the plane from flying, however, and it hasn't indicated when it'll reverse course.

The beleaguered aircraft was grounded worldwide on March 13, 2019, after two crashes, one in Indonesia in 2018 and the other in Ethiopia in 2019, that killed a combined total of 346 people. Apart from the human tragedy, it was a huge blow to Boeing's business, since the company has thousands of 737 Max orders on its books. In addition to the flight control system at the center of both investigations, other reports identified concerns with the airliner's flight control computer, wiring and engines. 

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Airlines are now slowly adding the 737 Max back into their schedules. Southwest was the latest carrier to do so when it resumed flights March 11. The plane is now back in service with all US carriers, but Boeing will have to work vigorously to retain the trust of airlines and the flying public in regard to the Max family. Here's everything else we know about what's happened with the airliner. 

What happened in the two crashes?

In the first crash, on Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 dove into the Java Sea 13 minutes after takeoff from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 189 people. The flight crew made a distress call shortly before losing control. That aircraft was almost brand-new, having arrived at Lion Air three months earlier. 

The second crash occurred on March 10, 2019 when Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 departed Addis Ababa Bole International Airport bound for Nairobi, Kenya. Just after takeoff, the pilot radioed a distress call and was given immediate clearance to return and land. But before the crew could make it back, the aircraft crashed 40 miles from the airport, six minutes after it left the runway. Aboard were 149 passengers and eight crew members. The aircraft involved was only four months old. 


What caused the crashes?

Planes crashes rarely have a single cause, which is the case here. On Oct. 25, 2019, the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee published its final report on the Lion Air crash. The report identifies nine factors that contributed to the crash, but largely blames MCAS. Before crashing, the Lion Air pilots were unable to determine their true airspeed and altitude and they struggled to take control of the plane as it oscillated for about 10 minutes. Each time they pulled up from a dive, MCAS pushed the nose down again. 

"The MCAS function was not a fail-safe design and did not include redundancy," the report said. Investigators also found that MCAS relied on only one sensor, which had a fault, and flight crews hadn't been adequately trained to use the system. Improper maintenance procedures, confusion in the cockpit and the lack of a cockpit warning light (see next question) contributed to the crash, as well.

On March 9, 2020, almost one year to the day since the crash in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau published an interim analysis. Like the Indonesian findings, it cites design flaws with MCAS such its reliance on a single angle-of-attack sensor. It also blamed Boeing for providing inadequate training to crew on using the Max's unique systems. (The Seattle Times has a great deep dive on the report.)

Unlike their Indonesian counterparts, the Ethiopian investigators do not mention maintenance problems with the plane nor does it blame the flight crew. "The aircraft has a valid certificate of airworthiness and maintained in accordance with applicable regulations and procedures," the report said. "There were no known technical problems before departure." 

Remember that crash investigations are tremendously complex -- it takes months to evaluate the evidence and determine a probable cause. Investigators must examine the debris, study the flight recorders and, if possible, check the victims' bodies to determine the cause of death. They also involve multiple parties including the airline, the airplane and engine manufacturers, and aviation regulatory agencies.

What is the Boeing 737 Max?

Built to compete with the Airbus A320neo, the 737 Max is a family of commercial aircraft that consists of four models. The Max 8, which is the most popular version, made its first flight on Jan. 29, 2016, and entered passenger service with Malaysia's Malindo Air on May 22, 2017. (Malindo no longer flew the plane by the time of the first crash.) Seating between 162 and 210 passengers, depending on the configuration, it's designed for short- and medium-haul routes, but also has the range (3,550 nautical miles, or about 4,085 miles) to fly transatlantic and between the mainland US and Hawaii. The Max 9 first flew in 2017, the Max 7 in March, 2018 and the Max 10 on June 18, 2021.

The design of the 737 Max series is based on the Boeing 737, an aircraft series that has been in service since 1968. As a whole, the 737 family is the best-selling airliner in history. At any given time, thousands of some version of it are airborne around the world and some airlines, like Southwest and Ryanair, have all-737 fleets. If you've flown even occasionally, you've most likely flown on a 737.

The 737 Max family compared

737 Max 7 737 Max 8 737 Max 9 737 Max 10
First flight 2018 2016 2017 2021
Length (in feet) 116 129 138 143
Seats About 153 About 178 About 193 About 204
Range 3,850 nautical miles 3,550 nautical miles 3,550 nautical miles 3,300 nautical miles

What's different about the 737 Max series compared with earlier 737s?

The 737 Max can fly farther and carry more people than the previous generation of 737s, like the 737-800 and 737-900. It also has improved aerodynamics and a redesigned cabin interior and flies on bigger, more powerful and more efficient CFM LEAP engines. CFM is a joint venture between General Electric and France's Safran.

Those engines, though, required Boeing to make critical design changes. Because they're bigger, and because the 737 sits so low to the ground (a deliberate design choice to let it serve small airports with limited ground equipment), Boeing moved the engines slightly forward and raised them higher under the wing. (If you place an engine too close to the ground, it can suck in debris while the plane is taxiing.) That change allowed Boeing to accommodate the engines without completely redesigning the 737 fuselage -- a fuselage that hasn't changed much in 50 years.

But the new position of the engines changed how the aircraft handled in the air, creating the potential for the nose to pitch up during flight. A pitched nose is a problem in flight -- raise it too high and an aircraft can stall. To keep the nose in trim, Boeing designed software called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. When a sensor on the fuselage detects that the nose is too high, MCAS automatically pushes the nose down. (For background on MCAS, read these excellent in-depth stories from The Air Current and The Seattle Times.) 


When was the Max grounded?

About 30 airlines operated the Max by the time of the second crash (the three largest customers being Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada). Most of them quickly grounded their planes a few days later. Besides the airlines already mentioned that list includes United Airlines, WestJet, Aeromexico, Aerolíneas Argentinas, GOL Linhas Aéreas, Turkish Airlines, FlyDubai, Air China, Copa Airlines, Norwegian, Hainan Airlines, Fiji Airways and Royal Air Maroc.

More than 40 countries also banned the 737 Max from flying in their airspace. China (a huge Boeing customer and a fast-growing commercial aviation market) led the way and was joined by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, India, Oman, the European Union and Singapore. Canada initially hesitated, but soon reversed course.

Up until March 13, 2019, the FAA also declined to issue a grounding order, saying in a statement tweeted the previous day that there was "no basis to order grounding the aircraft." That was despite a public outcry from a group of senators and two flight attendant unions. But following President Trump's decision to ground the Max that day, the agency cited new evidence it had collected and analyzed. 

Older 737 models, like the 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900, don't use MCAS and weren't affected. 


What was the problem with the warning light?

The Air Current reported March 12, 2019 that the Lion Air plane lacked a warning light designed to alert pilots to the faulty sensor and that Boeing sold the light as part of an optional package of equipment. When asked about the warning light, a Boeing spokesman gave CNET the following statement:

"All Boeing airplanes are certified and delivered to the highest levels of safety consistent with industry standards. Airplanes are delivered with a baseline configuration, which includes a standard set of flight deck displays and alerts, crew procedures and training materials that meet industry safety norms and most customer requirements. Customers may choose additional options, such as alerts and indications, to customize their airplanes to support their individual operations or requirements."

But on April 29, 2019, The Wall Street Journal said that even for airlines that had ordered it, the warning light wasn't operating on some Max planes that had been delivered (a fact the Indonesian accident report confirmed). Then on June 7, 2019, Reps. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, and Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington, said they'd obtained information suggesting that even though the plane maker knew the safety alert wasn't working, it decided to wait until 2020 to implement a fix. 

Boeing responded to DeFazio and Larsen in a statement sent to CNET the same day.

"The absence of the AOA Disagree alert did not adversely impact airplane safety or operation," the statement read. "Based on the safety review, the update was scheduled for the MAX 10 rollout in 2020. We fell short in the implementation of the AoA Disagree alert and are taking steps to address these issues so they do not occur again."

Boeing 737-100

What kind of MCAS training did 737 Max pilots receive?

Not much, which was a factor cited in both crash reports. As the Indonesian report said, "The absence of guidance on MCAS or more detailed use of trim in the flight manuals and in flight crew training, made it more difficult for flight crews to properly respond." Airline pilots are thoroughly trained to fly an aircraft under extraordinary circumstances, but they need accurate information about factors like airspeed and altitude to be able to make quick decisions in an emergency.

Though MCAS was a new feature, existing 737 pilots didn't have to train on a simulator before they could start flying the Max. Instead, they learned about the differences it brought through an hour's worth of iPad-based training. MCAS received scant mention. The reason? It was because Boeing, backed by the FAA, wanted to minimize the cost and time of certifying pilots who'd already been trained on other 737 versions. To do so, Boeing and the FAA treated the Max as just another 737 version, rather than a completely new airplane (which it pretty much is). 

Pilot complaints about the lack of training emerged quickly after the Lion Air crash. On Nov. 12, 2018, The Seattle Times reported that Max pilots from Southwest Airlines were "kept in the dark" about MCAS. The Dallas Morning News found similar complaints from American Airlines pilots four months later.

Etihad 777 flight

What other issues with the aircraft besides MCAS were identified?

There are a few.

  • In December, 2019, the FAA said it was looking at a potential problem with two bundles of wiring that power control surfaces on the aircraft's horizontal stabilizer. Because the bundles are close together, there's a remote possibility that they could short-circuit and (if not noticed by the flight crew) send the plane into a dive. Boeing initially argued a fix wasn't necessary, since earlier 737s have the same wiring design, and has proposed leaving the bundles as they are.
  • The same month, the FAA said it was investigating software that verify whether key systems on the aircraft are functioning correctly.
  • Then in February, 2020, Boeing notified the FAA of a malfunction with an indicator light for the stabilizer trim system, which raises and lowers the Max's nose. The indicator, which notifies pilots of a malfunction, was turning on when it wasn't supposed to. 
  • Boeing also investigated whether it needs to better insulate the engine cowlings from lightning strikes in flight. 
  • Separately, CFM International said there may be a potential weakness with a rotor on the Max's engines.
  • In April, 2020, the FAA instructed Boeing to make two additional computer fixes to the airplane beyond MCAS. One, a possible fault in a flight control computer, could lead to a loss of control from the horizontal stabilizer, while the second could lead the autopilot feature to potentially disengage during final approach.
  • Aviation safety regulators in Europe and Canada have asked for additional changes to the Max's avionics beyond MCAS.
  • in June, 2020, the FAA said Boeing had to fix engine coverings. The defect could lead to a loss of power during flights.
  • According to The Wall Street Journal, both the FAA and the Justice Department investigated whether Boeing workers mistakenly left debris in fuel tanks or other interior spaces of completed aircraft.
  • On April 9 after the Max had started flying again, Boeing notified 16 airline customers that "they address a potential electrical issue in a specific group of 737 MAX airplanes prior to further operations." The same day Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said the FAA wants to ensure "full confidence" in the airplanes before they return to service. 

Were any other reports issued?

On Oct. 11, 2019, an international flight safety panel issued a Joint Authorities Technical Review that faulted both the FAA and Boeing on several fronts. For the FAA, it said the agency needs to modernize its aircraft certification process to account for increasingly complex automated systems.

For Boeing's part, the report cited the company's "inadequate communications" to the FAA about MCAS, pilot training and shortage of technical staff. The review was conducted by representatives from NASA, the FAA and civil aviation authorities from Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Singapore, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.

Now playing:Watch this: Boeing CEO: 737 Max soon to be one of the safest planes


How did Boeing respond?

Boeing was fully involved with both investigations early on. On Nov. 6, 2018, just eight days after the first crash, the company issued a safety warning advising 737 Max operators to deactivate MCAS if a flight crew encountered conditions like the Lion Air pilots experienced. It also expressed sympathy for victims' families and pledged $100 million in support, and it quickly backed the US grounding order. 

"There is no greater priority for our company and our industry," Boeing said in a March 13, 2019 statement. "We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again."

As is common after a crash, Boeing didn't comment on preliminary findings of either investigation, but the day after the Ethiopian crash the company said it would issue a software update that would include changes to MCAS, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.

Following the Lion Air accident report, then CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the company was "addressing" its safety recommendations. "We commend Indonesia's KNKT for its extensive efforts to determine the facts of this accident, the contributing factors to its cause and recommendations aimed toward our common goal that this never happens again," he said.

The grounding order also caused Boeing to halt production of the Max for four months in January, 2020. 

Did Boeing know about Max problems before the crashes?

There is evidence that it did. On Oct. 17, 2019, Boeing revealed text messages between two of the company's top pilots sent in 2016, which indicated the company knew about problems with the MCAS system early on. In one of the messages, a former chief technical pilot for the Boeing 737 described the MCAS' habit of engaging itself as "egregious." 

Later that month, as he appeared before two congressional committees, Muilenburg admitted Boeing knew of the test pilot concerns in early 2019. "I was involved in the document collection process, but I relied on my team to get the documents to the appropriate authorities," he said. "I didn't get the details of the conversation until recently."

Then on Jan. 10, 2020 Boeing released a series of explosive emails and instant messages to Congress in which Boeing employees discussed the 737 Max. Though some expressed regret for the company's actions in getting the aircraft certified -- "I still haven't been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year," one employee wrote in 2018 -- others openly discussed the 737 Max's flaws and joked about the FAA's approval process. "This airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys," another employee wrote. (The New York Times has compiled the documents online.)

Did Boeing change its leadership?

Yes, but it didn't happen quickly. Though Muilenburg apologized to the victims' families in an interview with CBS News in May, 2019, he came under sharp criticism for his response to the crashes. On Oct. 11, 2019, Boeing announced it had taken away his role as chair so that as CEO, Muilenburg could "focus full time on running the company as it works to return the 737 Max safely to service." 

Muilenburg spent the next two months resisting calls for his resignation from his other position, but on Dec. 23, 2019 the company announced that he had stepped down. "The Board of Directors decided a change in leadership was necessary to restore confidence in the company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders," Boeing said in a statement. Chairman David Calhoun officially replaced Muilenburg on Jan. 13, 2020. 

Calhoun had defended Muilenburg before taking the top role, but in a March 5, 2020 interview with the New York Times he said his predecessor had needlessly rushed production of the Max before the company was ready. "I'll never be able to judge what motivated Dennis, whether it was a stock price that was going to continue to go up and up, or whether it was just beating the other guy to the next rate increase."

Separately, on Oct. 22, 2019, the company said it replaced Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Kevin McAllister, the official overseeing the 737 Max investigation, with Stan Deal, former president and CEO of Boeing Global Services.

What has the FAA's role been?

Complicated. The agency quickly came under fire on multiple fronts over the crashes. Congress, the FBI, the Justice Department's criminal division and the Department of Transportation all called for investigations of the FAA's certification process. Under an FAA program, Boeing was allowed to participate in the process, meaning that it inspected its own plane.

But on Jan. 16, 2020, an independent panel set up by the Department of Transportation (the FAA is a division of the DOT) dismissed that criticism. In its report, the committee found no significant problems with how the Max was cleared to fly. Though the committee said the FAA could improve the certification process, it saw no need for substantial changes. 

Those findings were largely echoed by a report from the Department of Transportation inspector general's office on Feb. 24 that made 14 recommendations for revising the FAA's certification program. Though the 55-page report said the FAA didn't deviate from an established protocol when it first cleared the plane to fly in 2016, it significantly misunderstood the MCAS flight control system.

Outside of the certification process, the FAA slapped Boeing with two fines for installing substandard or unapproved equipment in some Max planes. With the first fine, which the FAA proposed in January 2020 for $5.4 million, the agency said Boeing used improper equipment to guide the slats on 178 Max planes. Positioned at the leading edge of each wing, slats are deployed at takeoff and landing to provide more lift. The FAA also accused Boeing of installing a guidance system on 173 Max planes that used sensors that hadn't been properly tested. The proposed penalty is $19.68 million.

Has Boeing been subject to other fines?

Yes. After the Department of Justice charged Boeing with conspiring to defraud the FAA, the company entered into a deferred prosecution agreement to pay more than $2.5 billion in criminal penalties, compensation payments and the establishment of a $500 million beneficiaries fund for the 346 crash victims.

Did Congress get involved?

Yes. In March 2020, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure released a report on the design, development and certification of the 737 Max and the FAA's oversight of Boeing. It said "acts, omissions, and errors occurred across multiple stages and areas of the development and certification of the 737 MAX." The report went on to identify five specific issues.

  • Production pressures: There was tremendous financial pressure on Boeing and the 737 Max program to compete with the A320neo, leading the company to rush the plane into service. 
  • Faulty assumptions: Boeing made fundamentally faulty assumptions about critical technologies on the 737 Max, most notably with MCAS.
  • Culture of concealment: In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers and 737 Max pilots.
  • Conflicted representation: The FAA's current oversight structure over Boeing creates inherent conflicts of interest that have jeopardized the safety of the flying public. 
  • Boeing's influence over the FAA's oversight: Multiple career FAA officials documented examples of FAA management overruling the determination of the agency's own technical experts at the behest of Boeing.

On Sept. 16, the House Transportation Committee issued a report that blamed the crashes on a "horrific culmination" of failures at Boeing and the FAA. "In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and 737 MAX pilots," the report said. And as for the FAA, "the fact that a compliant airplane suffered from two deadly crashes in less than five months is clear evidence that the current regulatory system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be repaired."

Then on Dec. 21 after a Senate report faulted Boeing's and the FAA's initial review of the Max, Congress passed legislation that reforms the FAA's protocols for certifying new aircraft. Among other things the bill eliminates some parts of the process that allows manufacturers to certify their own planes and creates new safety review procedures and whistleblower protections.

What happened during the grounding period?

First off, Max airlines had to look for parking spaces for the roughly 300 Max aircraft Boeing had delivered by the time the worldwide order went into effect. That's a tremendously complicated effort by itself.

But while airlines can't fly the plane (except to ferry empty aircraft from one airport to another) Boeing was able to conduct test flights for evaluating its proposed fixes. 

On May 16, 2019, the company said its updates were largely complete after more than 135 test flights. Five months later, on Oct. 22, the company said it had made "significant progress" toward that goal by adding flight control computer redundancy to MCAS and three additional layers of protection. It also had conducted simulator tests for 445 participants from more than 140 customers and regulators. Boeing provided a further progress report Nov. 11, 2019. 

Boeing and the FAA finally began the recertification flights on June 29. The flights attempted to trigger the steps that led to the two crashes and confirm that MCAS isn't activating erroneously. The FAA also reviewed pilot training materials and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson piloted the plane on a Sept. 30 test flight to evaluate Boeing's changes. Speaking to reporters after the flight he said he "liked what I saw."

When did the FAA lift the grounding order, and what are its proposed fixes?

The agency lifted the order on Nov. 19. The mandatory fixes include:

  • MCAS must compare data from more than one sensor and avoid relying on a single angle-of-attack sensor that's giving faulty readings.
  • All aircraft must have a warning light that shows when two sensors are disagreeing.
  • When MCAS activates, it must do so only once, rather than activating repeatedly (another factor that contributed to both crashes).
  • If MCAS is erroneously activated, flight crews must always be able to counter the movement by pulling back on the control column. 
  • Pilots must get more-rigorous training on MCAS, including time in a Max simulator (see next question).

Outside of MCAS, the FAA identified other modifications Boeing must make, including separating two bundles of wiring that power control surfaces on the aircraft's horizontal stabilizer to ensure redundancy if one of the bundles fails.

Not everyone is trusting in the FAA's decision, though. On March 10, relatives of some of the Ethiopian crash victims asked the agency to reverse its decision. In a meeting with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, they also called for several top FAA officials to be removed. 

How will pilot training change?

Simulator time focusing on MCAS will now be required, a change from a position the FAA previously took. It took lobbying from pilots and regulatory officials from other countries, like Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau, to change that decision.

They won an influential supporter on June 19, 2019, when "Miracle on the Hudson" Capt. Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger argued before a congressional committee that simulator training should be required before pilots take the Max back into the air. He also said the original design of MCAS was "fatally flawed and should never have been approved."

On Jan. 7, 2020, Boeing agreed when it issued a recommendation that pilots receive simulator training on MCAS before the Max returns to service. Simulator sessions will require extra time and expense for airlines struggling to get their Max fleets back in the air.

What happens next?

Before airlines can fly the Max again, Boeing must work with them to make the required fixes and retrain pilots. Only then will the FAA sign off on certification for each aircraft. That will take time. 

American Airlines resumed flights Dec. 29 with a Max flight between Miami and New York LaGuardia. The airline says it will continue to add Max flights, "with up to 36 departures from our Miami hub depending on the day of the week." United Airlines resumed flights on Feb. 11 while Southwest Airlines started flying the Max again on March 11. Alaska Airlines, a new 737 Max customer, began flights March 1.

But that's just in the US. Aviation regulatory agencies around the world also need to approve the fix before they'll let the Max fly to the countries they oversee. Traditionally, they've followed the FAA's lead on such matters, but Transport Canada, China, the European Aviation Safety Agency and the UK's Civil Aviation Authority conducted independent tests of the plane on different timelines while working with the FAA. 

Brazil's National Civil Aviation Agency lifted its grounding order Nov. 25. Canada followed on Jan. 18, the EU and the UK on Jan. 27 , the United Arab Emirates on Feb. 17, Australia on Feb. 26, Fiji on March 31 and Vietnam on April 6.

China is still conducting its review, and has not set a timetable for any updates.


How will I know I'm booked on a Max flight and will I be able to change my reservation?

Your aircraft type will be listed in the flight details as you book. Some airlines will spell out the full aircraft name as "737 Max," while other carriers may shorten it to "7M8." If you're not sure, contact a reservations agent to confirm. Just remember, though, that airlines can change the aircraft type for your flight at the last minute.

For now at least, all US airlines operating the Max will allow you to change your flight with penalty or cancel your trip for either a full refund or a travel credit. The exact details will vary, and I wouldn't expect the policies to last forever, so click the link above and confirm with your airlines as you book.

How important is the Max series to Boeing?

Hugely important. Boeing and Airbus are in a fierce battle for the 150- to 200-seat aircraft market. Following the second crash, new orders for the 737 Max slowed dramatically, and some carriers canceled or delayed their orders, a trend only hastened by the travel slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic.

But Boeing still has almost 4,000 737 Max orders on the books, and new orders have started to creep up since the lifting of the grounding order. The list of buyers includes Alaska, Ryanair, United, Virgin Australia, Air Canada, AeroMexico, Southwest and Air Astana. 

Has a commercial aircraft been grounded before?

Yes. In the most recent example, the FAA grounded the Boeing 787 for three months in 2013 after a series of nonfatal battery fires. Before that, the FAA grounded the Douglas DC-10 for a month in 1979 after a crash near Chicago O'Hare Airport killed 271 people on board, plus two on the ground. (Outside of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that remains the deadliest airplane crash on US soil.) The Chicago crash was ultimately attributed to improper maintenance. The crash of a DC-10 in 1974 in France, killing 346 people, was caused by a design flaw on a cargo hold door latch.

Outside the US, both Qantas and Singapore Airlines voluntarily grounded their Airbus A380s for a couple of days after a Qantas flight from Singapore to Sydney in 2010 had an uncontained engine failure. 

Correction, Jan. 10, 2020, 1:54 p.m. PT: This story initially misstated the status of Malaysia's Malindo Air at the time of the first crash.


737 flying

737 MAX News

Messages from Our LeadersOperations and Pilot TrainingReturn to Service PlanSouthwest Business CustomersFAQsMore Info

Gary Kelly’s Message Regarding MAX Return to Service l March 10, 2021

As we prepare to return the Boeing 737 MAX 8 into scheduled service this week, let me begin by extending my personal thanks and sincere gratitude to the thousands of Southwest Airlines Employees across every Department who have worked countless hours, spanning two years, to bring us to this point. We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to our Customers for their patience. We appreciate the focused work of our counterparts at Boeing, the FAA, and aviation regulators and experts across the globe to ready the aircraft to welcome everyone back onboard.

While the airline industry is competitive, I’ve been inspired and encouraged by the shared dedication of aviation experts and Leaders worldwide devoted to resolving operational issues to prepare the MAX for a safe return to service. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to find a more impressive display of collaboration and Teamwork across the entire industry throughout my 35-year history in this business. There is no greater responsibility that we all share than the Safety of our Employees and Customers.

To be clear, I have the utmost confidence in our ability to safely operate the Boeing 737 MAX 8. In December, I had a chance to fly on one of the more than 200 readiness flights we have conducted since late last year. It was a quiet and smooth ride, like I have experienced on every MAX flight I have taken since Southwest began operating the aircraft in 2017. I hope you will be reassured, as I am, to know all that has gone into making the MAX among the most-reviewed planes in the world.

In addition to the FAA-approved changes Boeing made to the MAX, our Teams across Southwest Airlines have spent the last two years preparing for our safe operation of the MAX after its return to service. Since December, we have completed the following:

  • Every active Southwest 737 MAX Pilot has completed (or will complete prior to flying the aircraft) additional FAA-required flight training in one of our nine 737 MAX simulators, as well as additional FAA-required computer-based training covering MAX procedures;
  • Every active Southwest Pilot has re-taken Southwest’s original 737 MAX 8 computer-based differences training as a refresher to complement the FAA-required training;
  • Southwest has conducted more than 200 Readiness Flights with our active 737 MAX fleet and completed thousands of hours of work, inspections, and required software updates to the aircraft so that we are prepared to welcome you back onboard.

Simply put, we would not be returning the MAX to service if I did not believe, beyond any and all doubt, that the aircraft is ready to carry our most precious cargo—you! I would not hesitate for a second to put my wife, daughters and sons-in-law, and granddaughters onboard the plane.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating, there is nothing more sacred to me than the safety of our Employees and Customers. The changes made and the measures taken, by literally thousands of experts around the globe, have convinced me that the MAX is ready for us to safely fly once again with our proud and beautiful Southwest livery and our Pilots’ collective stamp of approval.

Thank you for your patience through this important work as we prepared to welcome you back onboard!

Letter from Gary Kelly, Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer l November 18, 2020

After a thorough and comprehensive review of Boeing’s enhancements to the 737 MAX 8, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued official requirements that enable airlines to return the MAX to service. Southwest is in receipt of the FAA’s directive regarding flight control software updates and additional Pilot training related to the MAX, and we are ready to meet each requirement. There is much work to be done before our MAX aircraft will resume service, which we estimate will likely take place no sooner than the second quarter of 2021. Today, I want to share a few of our thoughts and plans.

First and foremost, there is nothing more sacred to me than the Safety of our Customers and Employees. If we had a cause for doubt of the Safety of our fleet—or any subset of it—simply put, the planes would not fly. That is a moral obligation that I share with my fellow Southwest Family Members who work, fly, and travel with our own families on these aircraft. This is not only our profession, career, and livelihoods—it’s deeply personal to all of us.

Our Southwest Pilot Leadership Team has reviewed and expressed confidence in the MAX software and training updates following Boeing’s enhancements to the aircraft. I have personally been in contact with Boeing and the FAA regarding the changes and have been briefed by our internal experts. Additionally, aviation regulators from countries around the world have reviewed Boeing’s changes to the aircraft and the FAA’s new requirements.

Without getting too technical, we understand that Boeing has made changes to the flight control system that now compares input from two angle of attack sensors as opposed to one; the aircraft only responds if data from both sensors agree and only activates once per event; and Pilots always have the ability to override the aircraft’s input. These changes have been reviewed and approved by the FAA, and, with these enhancements, I am confident we will be ready to operate the MAX in accordance with the FAA’s requirements. I am going to be flying on the MAX before we return the aircraft to service—and the same is true for many other Southwest Leaders.

Before we return the aircraft to customer service, however, every active Southwest Pilot will complete additional FAA-required flight training in one of our nine 737 MAX simulators and will complete additional FAA-required computer-based training covering MAX procedures. Southwest will also require active Pilots to re-take our original 737 MAX 8 computer-based differences training as a refresher to complement the FAA-required training. Additionally, Southwest will conduct multiple readiness flights on each of our 34 MAX aircraft and complete thousands of hours of work, inspections, and the software updates before any of our Customers board a Southwest 737 MAX.

At Southwest, we only operate Boeing 737s, and our Pilots are highly trained and experienced at flying the aircraft. In fact, before the 737 MAX was grounded, Southwest Pilots flew almost 40,000 flights on the aircraft, which is more than 89,000 flight hours. Now, we’ll approach returning the MAX to service with the same commitment to training that we’ve employed for almost 50 years coupled with an uncompromising and unwavering commitment to Safety. For us, it’s a passionate pursuit, and it’s among the most important work of our careers.

Finally, we invite you to continue reading for more information regarding our plans for returning the aircraft to service. On this site, we feature a video from Senior Vice President of Air Operations Alan Kasher that explains next steps, including the additional Pilot training that will take place before the MAX will return to service. We will continue updating the site with additional information as we move forward. Our goal throughout this process is to be open and transparent with you every step of the way—just as you’ve come to expect from us.

Thank you in advance for your patience and understanding throughout our upcoming return-to-service process for the 737 MAX. As always, we appreciate your support.

Return to Service Message

Southwest Airlines Pilot Training

Returning the 737 MAX to Service

Southwest Airlines Estimated 737 MAX 8 Return to Service Timeline

Southwest Estimated 737 Max 8 Return to Service Timeline. FAA issues requirements for returning the 737 MAX 8 to service. Phase 1, Preparing 737 MAX materials for FAA review. 15 plus days. Southwest updates Operational Manuals with new procedures. Southwest finalizes training curriculum for Pilots. Southwest submits all materials to the FAA for review and approval. Phase 2, FAA approval achieved: Launch return to service plan. 120 plus days. Remove MAX from storage. Install software update on every MAX. Train all active Southwest Pilots. Each Southwest MAX will fly multiple Readiness Flights with Pilot from our flight Operations Team (without Customers onboard). Final Phase, the MAX returns to service.

Southwest Business Customers

We understand you may have some questions about the upcoming 737 MAX return to service. First and foremost, there is nothing more important to us than the Safety of our Customers and Employees. After a thorough and comprehensive review of Boeing’s enhancements to the 737 MAX 8, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued official requirements in November 2020 that enable airlines to return the MAX to service.

Why we’re confident:

  • The Southwest Team carefully reviewed the FAA-required software enhancements, revised operational procedures, and Pilot training requirements.
  • Aviation regulators from countries around the world have reviewed Boeing’s changes to the aircraft and the FAA requirements.
  • With these changes, we believe the MAX is among the most reviewed and tested commercial aircraft in the world, and we have confidence in our ability to operate the MAX in accordance with FAA requirements.
  • Southwest conducted multiple readiness flights on each of our MAX aircraft and completed thousands of hours of work, inspections, and software updates before welcoming Customers onboard.
  • Customers are able to view the scheduled aircraft type on their itinerary. Please keep in mind that aircraft swaps can occur, meaning the scheduled aircraft at the time of booking may be different than the aircraft type scheduled on the day of travel. We encourage Customers to check aircraft type closer to the scheduled departure date. For more information on how Customers may determine a scheduled aircraft type, please visit The Southwest Airlines Community.
  • If you are booking in your company’s preferred booking channel, aircraft type may not be displayed during the booking process. If this is the case, please visit and use the Flight Status option to check your flight’s aircraft type.

Boeing 737 MAX 8 FAQs

Yes, we are. The Southwest Team carefully reviewed the FAA-required software enhancements, revised operational procedures, and Pilot training requirements. With these changes, we believe the MAX is among the most reviewed and tested commercial aircraft in the world, and we have confidence in our ability to operate the MAX in accordance with FAA requirements. Additionally, aviation regulators from countries around the world have reviewed Boeing’s changes to the aircraft.

Southwest Pilots are among the most experienced Boeing 737 aviators in the industry -- in fact, it’s the only aircraft we fly. Our Pilots flew almost 40,000 flights with the MAX prior to the grounding, which is more than 89,000 flight hours. We know the 737, we train in the 737, and we take our mission to return the 737 MAX safely to the skies very seriously.

Yes! Before we brought the aircraft back into service, every active Southwest Pilot underwent FAA-required flight training in a 737 MAX simulator.

In fact, Southwest spent more than a year obtaining, installing, and certifying nine 737 MAX simulators that join 15 other 737-700 and 737-800 simulators as part of our Pilot training center in Dallas. To supplement the flight training, all of our active Pilots will complete computer-based training modules reviewing MAX procedures and operations, as required both by the FAA and Southwest.

To prepare for service, there was a great deal of work going on behind the scenes to remove Southwest’s 34 MAX aircraft from storage, install the new software, and perform maintenance checks on every aircraft. Additionally, our Flight Operations Team conducted Readiness Flights by flying each Southwest 737 MAX multiple times, without Customers onboard, prior to welcoming you and our fellow Southwest Employees back onboard.

Boeing made changes to the flight control system that now compares input from two angle of attack sensors as opposed to one; the aircraft only responds if data from both sensors agree and only activates once per event; and Pilots always have the ability to override the aircraft’s input.

The Southwest Pilot Leadership Team has reviewed the software and training updates proposed by Boeing, and required by the FAA, and has expressed confidence that the changes will add another layer of Safety to the MAX.

Additionally, Southwest believes the MAX will be among the most reviewed and tested commercial aircraft in the world, and we have confidence in our ability to operate the MAX in accordance with FAA requirements.

Customers are able to view the scheduled aircraft type on their itinerary. Please keep in mind that aircraft swaps can occur, meaning the scheduled aircraft at the time of booking may be different than the aircraft type scheduled on the day of travel. We encourage Customers to check aircraft type closer to the scheduled departure date. For more information on how Customers may determine a scheduled aircraft type, please visit The Southwest Airlines Community.

If you are booking in your company’s preferred booking channel, aircraft type may not be displayed during the booking process. If this is the case, please visit and use the Flight Status option to check your flight’s aircraft type.

Piloting EGYPTAIR Boeing 737-800 into Athens - Cockpit Views

I flew on American's Boeing 737 Max and found the airline doing the bare minimum to inform passengers they were booked on the notorious plane

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American Airlines Boeing 737 Max 8
Shannon Stapleton/Reuters
  • American Airlines is the largest Boeing 737 Max operator, averaging over 50 daily flights.
  • But passengers might be wary of the aircraft, which crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people.
  • I flew from New York to Miami on the Max and found American wasn't forthcoming about the aircraft.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

American Airlines was the first US airline to fly the Boeing 737 Max after its 20-month grounding by the Federal Aviation Administration. Its first flight was on December 29, from Miami to New York.

The airline has been quickly reincorporating the Max. It had over 50 daily departures in February and plans to increase that to nearly 100 in March.

With no incidents since its ungrounding, the Boeing 737 Max saga appears to finally be over. The aircraft had flown more than 2,700 times as of late January, Boeing said, and more countries have approved its return to service.

But the aircraft remains infamous, and airlines are walking a fine line with transparency about the Max.

On the one hand, airlines want to make people aware that they're flying on an aircraft that crashed in 2018 and 2019, killing 346 people. On the other hand, they don't want to scare people.

As the first US airline to fly the plane again, American was the first to tackle this challenge.

Here's what flying on an American Airlines Boeing 737 Max is like in 2021.

Our plane was a two-year-old Boeing 737 Max that had been delivered to American in December. Boeing has been clearing out its delivery backlog since the ungrounding, and a lot of airlines have received long-awaited orders.

Flying on American Airlines Boeing 737 Max
Thomas Pallini/Insider

I was flying on the same route — Miami to New York — on which American first launched the Max in 2018 and on which it relaunched the aircraft in December. Most of American's Boeing 737 pilots should know the route like the back of their hand.

Flying on American Airlines during pandemic
Thomas Pallini/Insider

... after booking ...

Flying on American Airlines Boeing 737 Max
Thomas Pallini/Insider via American Airlines

... and when selecting a seat.

AA Boeing 737 Max
Thomas Pallini/Insider via American Airlines

At the airport, I couldn't find the Max name when I was printing a boarding pass ...

Flying on American Airlines Boeing 737 Max.
Thomas Pallini/Insider

... reviewing trip details ...

Flying on American Airlines during pandemic
Thomas Pallini/Insider

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Sloan was much closer to the ball than you are. But this is so retreat. I ask you to take positions, barely hiding a smile, the blonde said seriously.

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