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Return of Troubled Boeing 737 MAX Planes Will Come in Phases

Update: September 27, 2019

Boeing management’s recent announcements, along with other news reports, indicate that the return of the 737 MAX will be “phased.” Training sessions for American Airlines pilots are scheduled through mid-October with returns of the aircraft possible late this year, according to the Dallas Morning News. But apparently Europe and Asia are likely to take longer than that  to clear the planes for service, so you may not see flights in those areas until sometime early in 2020.

For the rest of the year and in early 2020, unexpected schedule changes should not be a noticeable problem for passengers: Airlines have been pushing the planned operational 737 MAX dates steadily, so as to avoid premature schedule changes. When you see a MAX on a schedule, it’s very likely to be confirmed. And, according to the FAA, it will be safe.

Readers: Are you concerned about getting back on a Boeing 737 MAX after the Ethiopian and Lion Air crashes grounded the model? Comment below.

Editor’s note: The below original story was published in June 2019.

The FAA has reportedly uncovered a new issue with Boeing’s 737 MAX models that will likely extend cancellations of flights using the model into fall. The Boeing model was globally grounded following two fatal plane crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia (in a span of four months) that pointed to a Boeing flight system flaw. The software issue is thought to have pointed the nose of the plane downward even despite pilot intervention, causing tragic crashes that killed everyone on board.

According to late-June reports, simulator pilots discovered a new flaw in the Boing 737 aircraft control system—the system generally considered to be an important contributing cause of the Lion Air and Ethiopian crashes. The new flaw is in the same MCAS anti-stall system, which is designed to compensate for the airframe and engine upgrades from earlier 737s, but this time the problem may be hardware, not just software. Specifically, in simulator runs, pilots discovered that failure of a microprocessor in the stabilizer system could potentially have the same effect as the software glitch: pushing the nose of the aircraft downward.

This latest discovery will almost surely result in a further delay in return of the 737 MAX to airline service. The objective is to make it safe before making it available. In other words: Don’t expect to fly in a MAX any time soon, but when they return, travelers can be confident they’re safe.

Waiting on a Boeing Fix

In early June, the 737 MAX aircraft had already seen extended cancellations through the rest of the busy summer flying season (until Labor Day) by at least one major airline: American Airlines. In a statement, American said that the initial cancellations stemming from the grounding were set to run through August 19, but have now been extended through September 3. “By extending the cancellations, our customers and team members can more reliably plan their upcoming travel on American,” the airline added. “In total, approximately 115 flights per day” were canceled. American operates two dozen 737 MAX planes out of a fleet of 900 aircraft.

As for the eventuality of a fix to the grounded planes, American says it “remains confident that impending software updates to the Boeing 737 MAX, along with the new training elements Boeing is developing in coordination with our union partners, will lead to recertification of the aircraft soon.”

The airline also explained that “not all flights that were previously scheduled on a MAX will be canceled, as we plan to substitute other aircraft types.” Put differently, the airline will cancel flights on some routes—likely lower-volume routes—to free up aircraft it can substitute in place of higher-volume routes served by the MAX. American says its goal is to “minimize the impact to the smallest number of customers.”

Boeing reportedly completed work on a software fix for its troubled aircraft back in May, but neither the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) nor its international counterparts have signed off on it.

“Boeing has said it is redesigning the software so that pilots can more easily shut off the system, keeping it from repeatedly reengaging, and not making it react as dramatically in pushing down the nose,” according to USA Today. “Rather than relying on data from a single sensor, the new system will take a measure of both sensors that tell the system whether the nose is pointed too high.”

There is no indication from the FAA of a timeline for approval, and one can imagine the agency will take its time to ensure the issue is truly corrected. However, the discovery of a new problem with the aircraft suggests the MAX will not be re-certified before the end of the summer travel season, and more likely not until the fall. The 737 MAX has been grounded since mid-March 2019.

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This story was originally published on June 10, 2019. It has been updated to reflect to most current information. SmarterTravel writers Carl Unger, Ed Perkins, and Editor Shannon McMahon contributed to this story. 

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