If enough passengers choose not to board the Max, it could become difficult to reintroduce the aircraft, says Ian Taylor
What has the UK August bank holiday to do with the Boeing 737 Max and the aircraft’s grounding following two fatal crashes?
Well, it is August bank holiday this weekend – both the height and the near end point of the summer. It is also the height of ‘the silly season’.
This is the period, predominantly in August, when frivolous news stories dominate the media and some downright outlandish ‘news’ is treated with gravitas.
A Sunday Times front-page story on August 18 was one such story, the headline declaring: “Flights for sale on ‘deathtrap’ 737s”.
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The newspaper – which boasts the second- highest circulation among UK Sundays (700,000) – reported: “Thousands of passengers are being sold tickets for flights on Boeing airlines that are still officially grounded after two crashes.
“Tui, United Airlines and other airlines have scheduled more than 32,600 flights on 737 Max 8 and Max 9 aircraft for later this year although regulators have not yet approved their return to the skies.”
The figures drew on data from aviation analyst OAG, so no reason to quibble with those.
But what is the story? The 737 Max has been in the forward schedules of carriers throughout the period of the grounding.
Airlines which have the Max – chiefly Southwest, United and American Airlines in the US, Tui and Norwegian Air in Europe, plus Ryanair which was due to begin operating the Max in April – have given regular updates on the length of period they have removed the aircraft from schedules.
These periods have progressively been extended as potential dates for regulatory recertification of the Max have slipped.
Tui gave an update last week, for example.
Some carriers still have the Max in their schedules from the end of October – the start of the winter flight schedules – pending regulatory approval. Others such as Ryanair have removed the aircraft from schedules until next year.
Either way, no passenger will board a 737 Max until the aircraft is recertified by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and no doubt the Civil Aviation Administration of China.
EASA has issued Boeing with a list of issues it wants resolved before it allows the aircraft back in the skies above Europe.
These relate not just to the anti-stall [MCAS] system on the aircraft. They include a flaw in the flight control system, concerns about the way the autopilot engages, difficulties pilots have encountered in using an emergency manual crank to change the aircraft’s nose angle and a flaw in the 737 Max flight simulator.
EASA also wants changes to crew procedures on the aircraft.
One thing Boeing and the FAA will want to ensure if they can is that the aircraft returns to the sky on a global basis. A piecemeal return would only add to public fears the Max is not safe.
The silly season
The Max was grounded in March after the second of two crashes in which 346 passengers and crew died, with both disasters attributed in part to the malfunction of the MCAS system about which pilots appeared not fully informed.
So why the Sunday Times story? This was on the front page of the newspaper, remember, second only in prominence to the leak of Whitehall plans for a no-deal Brexit.
The reasons are many but simple. There are fewer stories in August. Parliaments are not sitting. The EU is not at work. Political and economic commentators are on holiday. Markets are slow because traders are on holiday (which dampens volatility – wait till September).
News editors are more desperate than normal to fill space – the spoof by-line ‘Phil Space’ in UK satirical magazine Private Eye is not simply a pun.
But journalists are also on holiday, so those in the office – often unfamiliar with a subject – pick up whatever ‘news’ comes to hand.
Stories appear that are not stories at all, or small stories are swollen out of all proportion and stuck on the front page.
The trick is to spot these and ignore them. However, a genuine piece of news about the Max did appear this week. Reuters reported that the FAA plans to test new 737 Max software on less-experienced pilots to see how they respond.
The FAA is working toward approving new pilot training and reprogrammed software for the stall-prevention system and Reuters reported: “The FAA is making progress in the re-approval process.”
It noted the FAA had asked Southwest, American Airlines and United to provide the names of newer 737 pilots who have flown the Max at least once.
FAA ‘sources’ suggested the test would be conducted in mid-September as “a first step toward creating a wider test group”.
What matters now
What was of interest in the Sunday Times story was the reaction of a passenger to receiving notice they could be flying on a 737 Max.
The single passenger quoted said he felt like a “guinea pig”. No passenger would be used as a ‘guinea pig’ in this way, of course.
I have no idea whether the passenger quoted was a random punter who received a notification from the airline and contacted the newspaper or was already known to the reporters (this happens more than you imagine) or found some other way. It doesn’t matter.
Fundamentally, what matters is the following:
One, are the issues with the handling of the aircraft and performance of the MCAS system resolved?
Two, can the system of certification of new aircraft and, specifically, the relationship between Boeing and the FAA be trusted?
The New York Times, in a report at the end of July, accused the US regulator of “relaxing its oversight” of the Max, having an overly close relationship with Boeing and overseeing “a broken” regulatory process.
It reported the FAA did not fully understand the MCAS anti-stall software system and only became aware of it after the first of the two crashes last October.
Having been made aware, the FAA nonetheless failed to ground the Max until after the second crash in March and then only acted after regulators in China, Europe and elsewhere acted first.
Three, how will passengers react? Will they fly on the 737 Max when it returns? Or will a significant proportion ask to be put on another aircraft?
In June, airline association Iata noted restoring public confidence in the Max “demands” that regulators agree on the timing of the aircraft’s return.
Also in June two US consumer surveys suggested airlines would face difficulties convincing passengers to board the aircraft once it has the all clear.
A study of 2,000 travellers by the Atmosphere Research Group found 70% would hesitate to book a flight on the Max.
Only 14% said they would fly the Max within six months of its return and two thirds – business and leisure travellers – would hesitate to fly the aircraft a year after its return.
A separate UBS Evidence Lab survey of 1,000 respondents also found 70% would think twice about flying on the aircraft.
If enough passengers choose not to board the Max – airlines are likely to offer the option – it could become difficult to reintroduce the aircraft regardless of its certification.
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