Twenty months after Boeing’s new 737 MAX was grounded worldwide following two deadly crashes, the Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday cleared the jet to return to the skies, giving Boeing a rare lift in deeply troubled times.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said the MAX is now “the most heavily scrutinized transport aircraft in aviation history.”

“I can tell you my family and your family will be safe on this aircraft,” Dickson said in a telephone press conference.

The long-delayed approval means the MAX is on track to fly passengers again in the United States before year end. But its path forward is challenging.

Boeing must now grapple with the logistics of modifying hundreds of planes and returning them to the sky. It will resume MAX deliveries and production in Renton will begin again to ramp up, though very slowly.

The company’s future remains weighed down by the massive financial hit from the grounding and the deep reputational damage from the tragic crashes.

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And it is struggling to survive a historic, coronavirus-driven aviation downturn that’s slashed global air travel to a quarter of what it was a year ago.

Still, the FAA’s formal clearance for the jet to return to service marks at least the beginning of the end of Boeing’s MAX crisis.

Stan Deal, CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, called the FAA’s directive “an important milestone.” Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun in Chicago, in a statement, said “the lives lost in the two tragic accidents” and the lessons learned from the MAX crashes “have reshaped our company.”

Since the first MAX crash two years ago, Boeing has suffered through a relentless litany of damning revelations, scathing investigation reports and discoveries of problems that delayed this moment.

As details of what caused the disasters surfaced over the past 20 months, Boeing’s reputation for engineering excellence has been shattered, while the FAA’s position as the world’s arbiter of safety has been seriously undermined.

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The investigations have opened an unprecedented window into Boeing’s design, marketing and testing of the plane, shedding an unflattering light on many of the participants.

A low point came with the release of internal emails that revealed how the chief technical pilot at Boeing Commercial Airplanes had disparaged and deceived airline customers. Specifically, he coaxed Lion Air of Indonesia to drop its plan to have its pilots train to fly the new jet in full-motion simulators. Just 17 months later, that airline suffered the loss of 187 lives in the first MAX crash.

Even before the pandemic struck, the expense of building jets it couldn’t deliver had drained Boeing’s finances.

Beginning to reverse the downward spiral depends upon reviving the MAX.

Getting the total of more than 800 grounded MAXs into the air again is a massive challenge. Boeing must help airlines get back into service the MAXs that were flying before the second crash and have been grounded since.

And it must also prepare for flight the MAXs built after the grounding and then deliver them to airlines — many which are in no rush to receive planes during the downturn.

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Boeing also will have to find new buyers for more than 60 of the parked and undelivered MAXs, because the airlines that ordered them have canceled.

Executive Vice President Greg Smith told analysts last month that he expects delivery of about half of the 450 MAXs Boeing has in storage by the end of next year, and the majority of the remaining jets in 2022.

Foreign aviation safety regulators must clear the plane before Boeing can deliver planes outside the U.S. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has said it’s ready to also clear the MAX to fly.

Dickson insisted Wednesday that “there is very little daylight” between the FAA and its counterparts in Europe, Canada and Brazil. He said that between now and early December the FAA plans five outreach sessions on the MAX to share the FAA’s analysis with regulators around the world.

He added that working closely with those global air safety authorities, “I would expect them to be able to issue their validation decisions probably within a matter of days.”

However, it’s widely expected that approval to fly in China, the largest market for the 737, may depend upon an improvement in Sino-American political relations.

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The MAX has been grounded since March 2019, after 346 people died in two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Safety enhancements

On Wednesday, Dickson acknowledged that the FAA’s original certification of the MAX had failed to detect the flaws in the flight control system that caused those fatal crashes — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).

“I would agree with that,” he said.

Echoing one of the major investigation reports into the crashes, the Joint Authorities Technical review, he said the failure was due to “fragmented communication” about MCAS inside Boeing between its flight test and systems specialists, as well as between Boeing and the FAA.

He said the FAA has now “put measures in place to make sure it does not happen again.”

An FAA safety engineer who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his job — one who previously criticized how Boeing certification engineers were discouraged from directly talking to their FAA counterparts — this week confirmed that communication between technical staff at Boeing and the FAA has indeed been significantly opened up since that report came out.

The MAX will return to the sky with an upgrade that fixes the MCAS flaws.

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MCAS is needed to ensure the MAX handles smoothly in relatively rare flight conditions where the jet’s nose is unusually high, such as when it is climbing aggressively or banking steeply in a tight turn.

But the system has been redesigned so that it won’t be triggered, as it was previously, when a single sensor indicates the nose is too high.

In each of the crashes, a single faulty angle of attack sensor initiated the disaster. The revised MCAS will compare signals from the two angle of attack sensors on the airplane.

In addition, the system will activate only once, not kick in repeatedly, thus avoiding the protracted struggle between the pilots and the system that played out in the two crash flights.

And the power of MCAS to push the nose down will be monitored by the flight control computer so that the pilot can always counter it by pulling back on the control column.

While these were the changes necessary to fix MCAS, the intense scrutiny the jet’s systems received over the past 20 months produced additional safety improvements not directly related to the crashes.

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For example, duplicate sets of wires that control the movement of the horizontal tail were separated more to ensure redundancy if wires in one site were to be severed.

And Boeing has changed the MAX’s automated flight-control system’s software to make it more robust. It will compare data signals — not only angle of attack but other data such as airspeed and altitude — from both flight-control computers at once, instead of the previous practice of using only one of the computers on each flight.

The largest U.S. pilots union, the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), in a statement said it “believes that the engineering fixes to the flight-critical aircraft systems are sound and will be an effective component that leads to the safe return to service of the 737 MAX.”

FAA chief Dickson said the bottom line is that “the design changes eliminate the possibility of an accident occurring that is in any way similar to the Lion Air and Ethiopian accidents.”

More design changes ahead

While these changes have satisfied the FAA, foreign regulators have asked Boeing for further MAX design enhancements — changes that will not be available for the return to service, but that Boeing will develop within the next couple of years and then retrofit to the MAX fleet.

EASA wants a third measure of the angle of attack.

This probably won’t mean Boeing adding a third physical sensor to the exterior of the airplane. Instead, it can add what’s called a “synthetic” sensor, a system that allows the computer to make an indirect angle of attack calculation using a variety of different sensors and inputs.

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Boeing’s latest all-new jet, the 787 Dreamliner, has such a system called “synthetic airspeed” that takes input from the angle of attack sensors and various data points that indicate the plane’s attitude in the air. This system serves to cross-check the signals from the other sensors and enables the flight control computer to identify a false data signal.

Additionally, both EASA and Transport Canada want improvements to the flight crew alerts to bring the 737 MAX systems more in line with state-of-the-art cockpit designs.

For example, on both crash flights the faulty angle of attack sensor set off a “stick shaker” stall warning that continued throughout the flights: the pilot’s control column vibrated noisily, serving as a major distraction while the crew tried to figure out what was wrong.

When a stick shaker has clearly been triggered in error, Transport Canada insists that Boeing develop a way for the pilots to switch it off to reduce confusion.

EASA and Transport Canada want the additional design changes ready by the time the largest model in the MAX jet family, the 737 MAX 10, enters service.

The FAA clearly doesn’t believe these additional design changes are necessary.

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In its directive clearing the MAX to fly, the FAA concluded “that an erroneous stick shaker, while it may pose a distraction to the flight crew, does not affect controllability of the airplane.”

On Wednesday, the pilots union at Southwest Airlines commented on the stick shaker question, saying it is “dismayed that there is still strong disagreement between regulators.”

The FAA also explicitly rejected the need for a third measure of the angle of attack.

It argued that in the redesigned system, if one angle of attack sensor fails, MCAS will be disabled and, even though it may handle slightly differently in extreme situations, the plane will still be safely flyable.

FAA chief Dickson said he experienced that himself when he piloted the MAX on a demonstration flight in September.

However, to satisfy EASA and Transport Canada, Boeing will implement these two specific design enhancements.

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The company states that though regulators don’t consider either the third angle of attack measure or the crew alerting improvements as requirements “for the safe return to service,” nevertheless, these issues “will be addressed as we go forward.”

The FAA said that when Boeing has finalized its plan for these design changes, it will evaluate and certify them.

Effectively, the foreign regulators are bending Boeing to their will and the FAA is following. That role reversal highlights the U.S. safety agency’s loss of its traditional leadership role in air safety, stemming from its oversight failure in the original MAX certification.

Initially expecting a quick software fix after the fleet was grounded in March 2019, Boeing continued to build the jets for 10 months, though it slowed production from 52 to 42 jets per month.

Prepping to fly again

By the time Boeing halted production altogether in January, it had rolled out about 450 MAXs that couldn’t be delivered. They’ve been parked since, clogging the available ramp space in Renton, at Boeing Field in Seattle, in Everett and at Moses Lake in Eastern Washington.

Trade magazine Aviation Week estimated last month that more than 60 of those jets are “white tails” — meaning the original order has been canceled and no new customer has stepped in to buy the plane at a discount.

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In addition, 385 MAXs delivered to airlines before the grounding have been parked for 20 months on desert airfields around the world.

Airlines that have parked their MAX aircraft must make required maintenance and system modifications to prepare them to fly again. The FAA will review each U.S. airline’s MAX pilot-training program.

While many airlines won’t need those aircraft during the pandemic and so won’t be in a rush to get them into the air, the U.S. carriers and others have publicly stated their desire to get some MAXs into service quickly.

The three U.S. airlines that operated a total of 72 MAXs before the grounding — American, Southwest and United — will soon commence the new MAX pilot training required by the FAA.

Meanwhile, mechanics will take out of mothballs the aircraft that have been grounded nearly two years — making sure all the moving parts are lubricated and functioning correctly.

The process of preparing both the flight crews and the planes will take up to two months for Southwest and United. American expects to be first to fly in the U.S., with a small number of MAX flights scheduled in late December.

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The FAA will also inspect and issue an airworthiness certificate for every MAX Boeing built after the March 2019 grounding order. 

“We have our inspectors lined up,” Dickson said.

The MAX crisis appears likely to precipitate major changes in FAA oversight of the aviation industry.

The reckoning to come

This week in the U.S. House and Senate — which each held earlier public hearings where Boeing executives and FAA officials were aggressively questioned — bills aimed at strengthening FAA oversight inched forward with bipartisan support, offering the possibility they could become law perhaps even during this short lame-duck session before President-elect Joe Biden assumes office.

At Boeing, the impact of the crashes has reverberated throughout the company.

In October 2019, the company’s board fired Commercial Airplanes chief Kevin McAllister, and two months later Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg was similarly ousted.

Since the crashes, the company’s former equal split with Airbus of the single-aisle jet market has skewed heavily in favor of the European planemaker.

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Struggling with fallout from the MAX, Boeing had to abandon plans for a new jet, the new midmarket airplane, aimed at a substantial slice of the market that’s been left entirely to the Airbus A321neo. With no competitive candidate from Boeing, Airbus has orders for nearly 3,500 of those larger, long-range aircraft.

Because of suppressed worldwide demand, Boeing this year removed more than 1,000 MAXs from the official backlog, with 448 orders canceled and almost 600 more ruled as too doubtful to be counted as firm orders.

The 737 MAX order backlog as of Oct. 30 was 3,320 jets. The backlog for Airbus’ rival A320neo family, including the A321neo, is 80% larger.

Boeing projects that the cost of the prolonged and unprecedented grounding of the MAX will reach $20 billion. That figure covers compensation to airlines, abnormal production costs and the extra overhead expenses from the anticipated slow ramp-up over an extended period.

It does not include the compensation that will be paid to the families of those killed in the crashes, now the subject of multiple lawsuits, and likely to exceed $2 billion.

Yet the damage to Boeing goes far beyond the ruinous financial hit.

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Even as the MAX is cleared to fly again, Boeing has not fully accepted the responsibility it has for the flawed flight-control system that caused the crashes.

Seemingly restrained by the caution of corporate lawyers, Boeing won’t publicly acknowledge that the aspects of the original MCAS design that it has fixed were actual flaws.

Instead, Boeing’s top leadership concedes only that company engineers made wrongly optimistic assumptions about how pilots would handle a malfunction of the system.

A flurry of investigations by both expert aviation panels and by Congress have highlighted how Boeing’s emphasis, for business purposes, on portraying the MAX as minimally changed from the previous 737 model led to design decisions and lack of disclosure that undermined its safety.

Boeing’s once-stellar reputation with the public is badly tarnished. And there’s a reckoning to come of responsibility for the crashes.

The final report of the investigation into the Ethiopian crash is not complete. Congress may strengthen oversight of commercial jet manufacturing. Civil lawsuits are pending. A Department of Justice grand jury is considering criminal liability.

Nevertheless, after two years of intense engineering scrutiny, Boeing and the FAA have declared the new, improved MAX is safe to fly.

In a message to Boeing employees Wednesday morning, CEO Calhoun told them that “every next plane we deliver is an opportunity to rebuild our brand and regain trust.”