March 20, 2019, © Leeham Co: I’ve been covering or employed in commercial aviation since 1979. I’m an aviation historian buff.
I’ve read all about the groundings of the Douglas DC-6, Lockheed Constellation, Martin 202 and de Havilland Comet. I read about how the Federal Aviation Administration didn’t ground the Lockheed Electra, choosing operating restrictions instead.
I lived through the grounding of the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 and Boeing 787. As a reporter, I walked through the debris of the American Airlines DC-10 crash that led to the grounding. I went to the crash scene of the Delta Air Lines Boeing 727 at D/FW Airport and I’ve covered many, many crashes through reporting and as a commentator.
I’ve never seen anything evolve in air accidents as has evolved in the Boeing 737 MAX investigations.
A great deal of the evolution is the changing technology in information flow. Social media is far faster than AP, UPI or the network stations were in their heyday. Flight data and cockpit voice recorders have far more information than they did in the 1970s and 1980s, and which were non-existent in the 1940s and early 1950s. Information coming from readouts of the FDRs and CVRs are often released more quickly than in the past.
Even so, the fluidity, the dynamics and the unprecedented nature of information and events surrounding the MAX after the Ethiopian Airlines FT302 crash is stunning—there is just no other word for it.
What is true at 9am may no longer be true at 3pm. What becomes known at 9pm may vitiate what was valid at 7am.
Such was the case on Sunday/Monday when Dominic Gates of The Seattle Times published a comprehensive piece about the development of the stall recovery system on the MAX. Gates, the long-time aerospace reporter for The Times, outlined the internal debates about the MCAS and the conflicts between Boeing and the FAA.
The ink was hardly dry on this when The Wall Street Journal published, on Sunday night, news that the US Department of Transportation launched an investigation about the FAA-Boeing MCAS dynamics. This report included the startling information that the US Department of Justice launched a criminal investigation.
A US criminal investigation, outside of suspected bombing or terrorism, is unheard of in accidents. The only one I can remember is the 1996 crash of a ValuJet DC-9 in which the maintenance company, Sabre Tech, loaded oxygen canisters in the cargo bay, failing to secure the load or cap the canisters. Some triggered on taxi, starting a conflagration that destroyed the airplane as the pilots tried to return to Miami shortly after takeoff.
ValuJet was grounded and, once the cause determined, criminal charges were filed against Sabre Tech and some employees.
Criminal investigations outside the US with air accidents are not unusual. These are also often criticized as inhibiting free flow of information that contributes to aviation safety.
These developments totally blew out of the water my prediction, written Friday and published Monday, that the grounding would be lifted by the end of April. I also concluded the impact to Boeing would be limited.
All bets are off now as a result of these developments.
On late Monday, Transport Canada announced it wants to do its own evaluation of Boeing’s software upgrade.
This, too, is unprecedented.
Under international agreements, the regulators of one country generally follow reciprocities when certifying the airplanes of another country. They typically follow Service Bulletin and Airworthiness Directive notices. It’s an efficient and timely way to get the job done.
Now, with confidence in the FAA shattered by its slow response to grounding—it was the last agency to do so—Transport Canada said, in essence, it won’t take the FAA’s word the problem is solved.
On Tuesday, Europe’s EASA followed suit; it, too, will conduct its own review of the MCAS software upgrade before lifting the grounding order on the MAX.
There are indications the two agencies may even go one step further and review the very certification of the MAX.
This completely blows up any hope of a global lifting of the grounding by May.
Air Canada said it will be July 1 at the earlier before its MAX fleet returns to the skies.
All this raises questions about Boeing’s plans for the Paris Air Show.
The show is June 17-23.
As the MAX grounding rapidly evolves and a greater likelihood of an extended grounded emerges, what will this mean for Boeing at the show? Will it be more or less likely that the NMA gets Authority to Offer (ATO) at the show?
Before the ET302 accident, the market was beginning to think the ATO would be Boeing’s big announcement at the show (with Airbus launching the A321XLR in counter-programming). Assuming the MAX is still grounded by Paris, which seems a possibility, this will grab as much attention, or more, than any ATO announcement.
Or—will Boeing put off the ATO of the NMA altogether?
I’ve been getting this question a lot in recent days. Until Sunday’s developments, my answer was there shouldn’t be any affect. Now, as things evolve, I’m not predicting.
Things are just too fluid to make any calls right now.