The Boeing 737 Max Had Another Setback This Week, Here’s What We Know

A new chapter has been added to the Boeing 737 Max saga, and it’s pretty bleak. When the new aircraft was grounded worldwide in March — following two fatal crashes in a five-month span — Boeing promised to fix the software at the heart of the malfunctioning aircraft and have Maxes back in the air by the end of the year.

That was before several enormous setbacks, however, mostly recently American Airlines’s announcement that they’re delaying the return of their 737 Max fleet until at least January. Initially, the domestic carrier had plans to bring their fleet back by July, and then September, and then November, so this is just the latest in a series of troubling delays.

American Airlines’s announcement is not all that has plagued the grounded 737 Max of late: in July, not only did Boeing lose a $5.9 billion deal to make a fleet of 30 737 Maxes for Saudi Arabian budget airline Flyadeal, but they were also served with a lawsuit, along with Southwest Airlines, for allegedly conspiring to hide flaws in the aircraft’s system.

Needless to say, this does not bode well for the future of the 737 Max. But does this spell outright doom for Boeing’s trouble-plagued aircraft? We break it down.

Why are the 737 Max planes grounded?

A quick refresher: the 737 Max took its first flight in 2016 and came to market in 2017. The new model of the 737 was wildly and immediately popular, thanks to its ability to fly farther and more efficiently than past models. Boeing reported that they had received approximately 5,000 orders from over 100 customers worldwide (of which they’ve built and sold more than 750). Another part of the appeal? A promising a new flight-control software system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), an anti-stall system that would detect dangerous movement (such as ascent at a precarious speed or angle) and automatically maneuver the aircraft in order to avoid stalling and other fatal mistakes. That software, however, seems to be at the heart of what caused two deadly crashes in a five-month span.

First, in October 2018, a Lion Air 737 Max 8 flight taking off from Jakarta, Indonesia crashed into the Java Sea shortly after take-off, killing all 189 people on board. Then, in March, an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 flight from Addis Ababa crashed shortly after take-off, killing all 157 people on board.

Investigators, government agencies (including the U.S.’s Federal Aviation Administration), and industry watchdogs scrambled to figure out what had happened as cries for the global fleet to be grounded grew louder. China and Indonesia were the first countries to ground their Max fleets, making their respective announcements on March 11, just one day after the Ethiopian Airlines crash. On that same day, the FAA issued a Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community — a memorandum in support of continued use of the 737 Max.

Boeing also issued a statement, assuring the public that they would issue a software update to be approved by the FAA by April. But several countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Singapore, and Canada, proceeded to ground their fleets in the following days, and, eventually, the U.S. fleet was also grounded after the Trump administration succumbed to public pressure.

Both flights, according to investigators, crashed when the craft’s MCAS malfunctioned and pushed both planes into nosedives in order to compensate for what the plane’s sensors wrongly recognized as dangerous ascent patterns. And perhaps most troubling: according to a recent ethics complaint from a Boeing engineer alleges that the company rejected a system that may have reduced crash risk over cost concerns.

When will the 737 Max be back in the air?

That depends. While Boeing announced that they had developed updated software and performed more than 350 hours of test flights by May, putting the craft on track for recertification and flights by Fall 2019, that has proven to be wishful thinking. Per Reuters, “Regulators are still reviewing proposed software changes to the grounded plane with no certain timetable for the jet’s return.”

The ongoing review process comes after a late June statement from Boeing, clarifying that the FAA had “identified an additional requirement that it has asked the company to address through the software changes that the company has been developing for the past eight months.”

According to CNN, it’s not just an additional requirement Boeing needs to address but a serious flaw: several sources told the outlet that a bug in the updated software could push the plane’s nose down — which is what happened to both the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights that crashed.

Not only will that delay the re-introduction of the Max on a federal level, but both United and American Airlines announced in July that they had chosen to extend their 737 Max flight cancellations until at least November. (Initially, United had hoped to reintroduce their Maxes by July, but they pushed the date back to September, and now they’re hoping for an early November re-introduction.) Southwest, which has the largest Max fleet in the U.S., has grounded their planes until sometime this month.

And, as of now, American is grounding their Maxes until at least January 15, which likely means that United and Southwest aren’t far behind similar announcements.

What does this mean for the future of this model?

The recent software troubles aren’t just affecting domestic Max fleets, either. NBC News reported in July that budget Saudi airline Flyadeal canceled a $5.9 billion contract for a 30-craft fleet and opted to purchase planes from Boeing competitor Airbus instead. Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia told NBC, “This is far from a crucial or strategic customer, but it is a sign of possible trouble ahead.”

The good news for Boeing is that they’re still the easiest possible solution for many partners. Max groundings have caused innumerable cancellations and huge losses for the carriers who own Maxes — Ryanair, for example, will fly five million fewer passengers next year and close several bases of operation thanks to the loss of their Max fleet. Those losses hurt and make the airlines want to get back on schedule ASAP. If Boeing does fix their software and get the go-ahead, it’ll be cheaper for carriers like Ryanair, United, Southwest, and others, who have already sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into their Maxes, to just keep flying what they already own.

At the same time, given that Boeing developed the Max in order to replace old 737s and compete with Airbus’s 320 line, it doesn’t bode well for the aerospace company that customers are starting to turn to the fleet that they were trying to compete with in the first place. Airbus has reported a huge mid-year bump in orders, with 145 total in June alone, and their backlog of airliners has grown to 7,276 planes waiting to be built and delivered.

Don’t count out Boeing quite yet, though. They’re by and large the big dogs in commercial aircraft manufacturing. According to Boeing, “Boeing Commercial built and delivered 806 airplanes last year, up from the previous record of 763 jets a year earlier” and the company reportedly has a seven-year backlog to fulfill — including 5,000 Maxes. Of course that doesn’t account for the possibility that other airlines might follow in Flyadeal’s footsteps and cancel their orders in favor of Airbuses.