The Return of the MAX: Safety Improvements and Afterthoughts
Updated: Dec 13, 2021
By Gavin Ang
Disclaimer: This article reflects an opinion of the author and in no way truly reflects the global opinion of the Boeing 737 MAX or The Boeing Company itself, so feel free to interpret the facts and hope you are more informed through the article.
On November 23rd 2021, Singapore Airlines launched their inaugural Boeing 737 MAX flight to Phuket. The 737 MAX 8 Sierra-Mike-Charlie took off as SQ728 from Changi Airport at 10.13am local time in a major milestone for the airline, and for the aircraft type. Rebranded as the Boeing 737-8 under Singapore Airlines, the series sports some innovative cabin products, including a 10-seat business class cabin, complete with flatbed capabilities, alongside improvements to both economy and premium class seatings.
The Boeing 737 MAX Series (comprising of the MAX 7, 8, 9 and 10) is the latest iteration of the highly popular Boeing 737. Launched in 2010 as a direct competitor to the Airbus A320neo, the MAX introduced General Electric’s LEAP turbofan engines, giving the MAX an average of 14% of improved fuel economy compared to her predecessors. Together with improve flight avionics and landing gears, Boeing hoped that the MAX will bring about a watershed moment in sales as the budget and low-cost carriers sectors grew during the 2010s. However, after two fatal crashes, Lion Air Flight 610 (October 2018) and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 (March 2019), a highly publicized scandal ensued with the details of the design and certification of the Boeing 737 MAX laid bare for the public.
(Photo Courtesy of Boeing)
At its core, is the introduction of MCAS, or the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System, to counteract the aircraft’s tendency to pitch up due to the design of her LEAP engines and thereby preventing a stall. However, the MCAS data was fed by a single outboard angle-of-attack (AOA) sensor which, as the investigation pointed out, was a gross lapse in engineering design where multiple redundancies were normally used. Another major issue highlighted during the investigation was the lack of regulatory oversight within Boeing by the US Federal Aviation Administration, as the FAA allowed Boeing to audit parts of the MAX’s designs by Boeing’s own internal staff, leading to many issues with the design passing through the FAA’s certification system.
The global fleet of MAXs were subsequently grounded for 22-months as the investigation continued. During this time, numerous design and automation changes were made to the MAX, and pilot training was introduced to better prepare pilots for unexpected issues with the planes’ pitch and trim systems (which was a cause of both fatal accidents). The MAX was also recertified vigorously, with the FAA, as well as many global regulators paying a close eye on the performance of the MAX, and by mid-2021, the MAX was fully certified by the FAA and gradually re-introduced into service by airline around the world.
Today, several major airlines operate the MAX, and the most likely question in many people’s mind is: is the MAX safe to fly? In the wake of the scandal, Boeing has indeed made the effort to rectify most, if not all, identifiable major issues with the aircraft. Coupled with better training of pilots to deal with unforeseen situations, the MAX today is a safe aircraft to fly. Indeed the story of the MAX harkens to the 1970s when the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was first introduced, when a major accident in 1974 lead to a discovery of an uncorrected design flaw. The ensuing scandal tarnished the reputation of the DC-10, as well as her manufacturer. However, the DC-10 would eventually go on to prove herself to be a safe and reliable aircraft, comparable to most aircraft of her era, with some examples of her still flying safely today.
But the choice still rests with us, potential paying passengers, whether if we can place our trust in the airplane, her systems, her pilots, or if we opt to fly on another flight on a different aircraft. As a parting message from the author’s perspective, everything we do in our everyday lives carries a certain risk, and what we do depends on our risk appetite. But what we can do, is to educate ourselves to make informed decisions, to see if flying on a MAX is something well within our risk appetite.