Boeing 737 Max readies for takeoff after EU signals safety approval is imminent

Boeing’s 737 Max has taken a step closer to a return to the skies after the European regulator signalled that the grounded plane could be allowed to fly before the end of the year.

The 737 Max model, previously Boeing’s bestseller, has been inching towards reauthorisation in the US and EU, the two key jurisdictions, after being banned from flying around the world in March 2019 following two fatal crashes.

Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (Easa), said the 737 Max had reached its required safety standards after changes to its systems, in an interview with Bloomberg News.

Approval for the model would mark a key milestone for Boeing, unblocking one of its most important earners as it struggles with the financial effects of the coronavirus pandemic, which has caused widely disrupted the aviation industry. Boeing shares rose by up to 5% in early trading, before retreating to a 3% gain at midday on Wall Street, at just under $170 per share.

Boeing’s 737 Max crisis

The first Boeing 737 Max begins commercial operations with Malindo Air. Norwegian Air is also an early adopter of the new model, operating transatlantic flights. The model promises fuel efficiencies attractive to carriers.

Lion Air flight JT610 crashes after making a sudden, sharp dive into the Java Sea 13 minutes after departing from Jakarta, Indonesia. All 189 people onboard are killed. That particular plane had been in use for less than three months. The plane’s black box recorder reveals that the Lion Air plane had experienced problems with its airspeed indicators on its last four flights.

Boeing issues revised instructions on how pilots should react to erroneous readings from “angle of attack” sensors, believed to be a key factor in the Lion Air crash.

Flight ET302 crashes about six minutes after taking off from the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, killing all 157 people onboard. The captain had reported difficulties, and flight radar data shows the aircraft was climbing erratically with an unstable vertical airspeed.

The EU, Canada and the US all ground the Boeing 737 Max. Boeing itself issues a statement saying it “continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 Max”, but that “out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public” it w recommending the grounding of the entire global fleet of 371 aircraft.

The interim report into the Ethiopian Airlines crash finds that the pilots correctly followed Boeing’s emergency instructions, but were still unable to stop the plane’s nose repeatedly pointing down. The jet hit an airspeed of 500 knots (575mph), well above its operational limits, before cockpit data recordings stopped.

Airlines extend their ban on using the Boeing 737 Max after the US aviation regulator said it had identified a new potential risk with the plane.

In the wake of Boeing’s troubles, Airbus seems set to overtake it as the world’s biggest planemaker. As Boeing reported 239 commercial plane deliveries in the first half of the year, a 37% fall, rival Airbus shipped 389 deliveries, up 28% on the same period last year.

Pictures emerge of a Boeing 737 Max due to be delivered to Ryanair with the name 737 Max replaced by 737-8200 on the nose.

During congressional hearings into Boeing’s handling of the crisis, lawmakers were shown internal records revealing that three years before the crashes an employee had expressed concern that an anti-stall flight system could be triggered by a single sensor.

The crisis deepens with the release of hundreds of internal messages between employees working on the 737 Max aircraft, which boasted of deceiving safety regulators and said the plane had been “designed by clowns”.

Boeing orders inspections of its entire fleet of grounded 737 Max planes after it found foreign object debris in the fuel tanks of some of the mothballed planes.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), criticised for alleged oversights in allowing the plane to fly, is also close to recertifying the 737 Max. FAA boss Steve Dickson personally piloted a test flight last month.

Although every jurisdiction around the world has the power over approving planes to fly, in practice most take their lead from US and European regulators.

Air accident investigators found that faulty sensors contributed to the two fatal crashes when an anti-stall system forced the nose of the planes down shortly after takeoff. The crashes killed a a total of 346 people on an Lion Air flight in Indonesia in October 2018 and an Ethopian Airlines plane in March 2019.

Easa said Boeing would have to introduce a software-based sensor to complement the two physical sensors on the next version of the plane, the Max 10, but that the regulator was satisfied that the most recent version was safe enough to fly as well.

“Our analysis is showing that this is safe, and the level of safety reached is high enough for us,” Ky said. “What we discussed with Boeing is the fact that with the third sensor, we could reach even higher safety levels.”

In an emailed statement, Easa said it was “currently in the process of reviewing the final documents” in relation to the plane. It would then go to public consultation for four weeks, Bloomberg reported.

Regulatory approval of the 737 Max would mark a key milestone for Boeing, the US’s largest manufacturing company. The grounding of its most popular plane had already plunged it into crisis, eventually costing Dennis Muilenberg his job as chief executive.

The coronavirus pandemic caused an unprecedented slowdown in global aviation, which has prompted airlines around the world to cut back their orders. Boeing is cutting more than 16,000 jobs as it tries to slash costs in response.

A Boeing spokeswoman said: “We continue to work closely with global regulators on the rigorous process to recertify the 737 Max and safely return the airplane to commercial service. We are committed to addressing the regulators’ questions and meeting all certification and regulatory requirements.”

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