FAA Clears Boeing 737 Max To Fly Again

Nov 18, 2020

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Federal Aviation Administration has cleared the way for the Boeing 737 Max to return to the skies. You'll remember the jet was grounded in 2019 after two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed a total of 346 people. Here's FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in a video statement earlier this morning.

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STEVE DICKSON: Not a day goes by that I and my colleagues don't think about the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines victims and their families and our solemn responsibility to identify and address the issues that played a role in the accidents. It's taken a long time and a lot of effort, but we finally reached that point.

MARTIN: Investigators blamed a faulty flight control system which pushed the nose of the jet down uncontrollably shortly after takeoff in both crashes. NPR's David Schaper covers aviation and has been following this story since the beginning, joins us now. Hi, David.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So I mean, when the 737 Max was first certified to fly, the FAA and Boeing said then that the plane was safe. And then we have these two horrific crashes. Should passengers have confidence that the jet has been fixed?

SCHAPER: Well, certainly, the FAA and Boeing's reputations have been damaged a little bit by this - these incidents because, yes, they did say the plane was safe. And they both said the plane was safe after the first plane crash and then, yet, a second plane did. So what's different about the process this time in recertifying the plane is that other aviation authorities around the world have undertaken their own review. And what they're saying - the European Union's aviation safety agency is saying that they are about - they're satisfied. And they're ready to approve this plane to fly again, Canadians the same and other countries as well.

And Administrator Stephen Dickson, who was not in charge at the time the planes crashed and the plane was grounded, he's a former Delta Airlines executive and 737 pilot himself. He said repeatedly that he would not sign off on returning this plane to service until he flew it himself and felt comfortable enough to put his own family on the plane. Dickson flew the 737 Max on a test flight in late September.

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DICKSON: Based on all the activities that we've undertaken during the past 20 months and my personal experience flying the aircraft, I can tell you now that I am 100% comfortable with my family flying on it.

MARTIN: Which is a pretty solid personal endorsement.

SCHAPER: Yes.

MARTIN: Can we get specific, though, David? What exact changes did Boeing make to the 737 Max?

SCHAPER: Well, as you alluded to, investigators blame these crashes in part on a flawed flight control system. And in both crashes, it engaged in response to erroneous data from one single sensor. The system, which is unknown to the pilots of the first crash, repeatedly then forced the planes to nosedive, so the pilots could not pull out of. So Boeing has completely redesigned this system, put in place redundancy so it will no longer act on - based on one sensor. It also won't engage so forcefully and repeatedly. And they've revamped training procedures for pilots so they'll know exactly what to do to regain control if the system does engage in that way.

MARTIN: Does this mean 737 Max planes are going to be up in the air in the coming days?

SCHAPER: Not in the coming days. It's going to take a while for airlines to - first of all, they're going to have to get the planes out of storage. I mean, these have been parked now for almost two years. And there's a lot of maintenance and other things that the airlines will have to do to get their planes ready to fly just in normal circumstances. Now these fixes have to be added. The software updates and other changes made to the systems, they have to be tested out on each individual plane. And then the pilots have to go through this new training protocol so that they are up to speed on all the changes and can fly the plane safely.

MARTIN: I mean, Boeing can hope all they want that people are going to trust them to get back on those planes.

SCHAPER: That's right. Yeah.

MARTIN: (Laughter) Do you think that's likely?

SCHAPER: Well, you know, there's a lot of people who, because of the publicity of these crashes and the way that it came about - this was clearly a design flaw, something that happened - human error. A lot of people don't have a lot of confidence in the Boeing name nor in the FAA's word. And family members, particularly, of those who were killed in the crash...

MARTIN: Yeah.

SCHAPER: ...Have said that this move should not be happening yet.

MARTIN: NPR's David Schaper. Thank you.

SCHAPER: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.