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Boeing 737 Max Close To Flying Again. Has It Become Safer?


The head of the Federal Aviation Administration says Boeing's troubled 737 Max airplane could soon fly again. All 737 Max airplanes have been grounded since March of 2019 after the second of two deadly crashes. As NPR's David Schaper reports, the jetliner could be approved to return to service as soon as next week.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: In such an unusual year like this one, it's easy to forget how startling the aviation safety crisis of the 737 Max is.

TODD CURTIS: This has been an extraordinary situation with respect to grounding of aircraft.

SCHAPER: Todd Curtis is a former Boeing safety engineer who now runs

CURTIS: I've never seen a situation where an aircraft, a brand-new model, was grounded for nearly two years.

SCHAPER: Boeing's newest version of the venerable 737 had been in service less than 18 months when the first 737 Max crashed in Indonesia in October of 2018. The second Max crashed in Ethiopia five months later. Investigators blame both crashes, in part, on a flawed flight control system. A congressional inquiry found, quote, "a disturbing pattern of technical miscalculations and troubling management misjudgments by Boeing and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA in certifying the plane."

And Todd Curtis says that's led aviation regulators in other parts of the world to no longer take the FAA at its word.

CURTIS: There are several countries, including Canada, who have said, whatever the FAA does, we will do our own approval process to ensure that this change is for the better.

SCHAPER: The European Union's aviation safety agency indicates it is now confident in the software fixes and other changes Boeing has made to the 737 Max and is in the final stages of its review. In a statement, FAA chief Steve Dickson says that's happening here too and will be finished in coming days. The former Delta Airlines pilot and executive has repeatedly said he would not allow the plane's return until he flew it himself, which he did in September.


STEVE DICKSON: I liked what I saw, so it responded well. I did two landings and also some air work (ph) maneuvers over about a two-hour period. You know, I liked what I saw, and I felt prepared.

SCHAPER: Prepared because of new training, which is critical to pilots who were not even told the flight control system even existed before the first crash. Jon Weaks heads the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association. He says he's confident Boeing's fixes now make the Max safe.

JON WEAKS: I guaran-damn-tee (ph) you that our pilots - if they're on that airplane, it's going to be safe.

SCHAPER: But Boeing is still under investigation by the Justice Department for possible criminal violations for misleading regulators about certain elements of the 737 Max. And the airplane manufacturer's suffering financial blows from losing even more orders for the Max, which now top 1,000.

David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.
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