Boeing said on Monday that it plans to temporarily suspend the production of its 737 Max jets next month to focus on clearing out the 400 or so aircraft currently grounded in storage.
The jets have been gathering dust since March 13, 2019, when America's Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an emergency order grounding all 737 Max models in response to two crashes with the new aircraft that killed a total of 346 people.
The crashes – of Lion Air flight JT610 in October 2018, and of Ethiopean Airlines ET302 in March 2019 – have been attributed to the design of the passenger jet's anti-stall – sorry, plane pedants hate it when we call it that – anti-death flight control software, known as MCAS (that's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), and insufficient MCAS training (for which read virtually none) among pilots.
The FAA has yet to issue an official report on the crashes; the agency is expecting an audit of the 737 Max's certification process by the US Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General. Other regulatory agencies around the world are conducting their own investigations into the crashes before allowing the 737 Max in their airspace.
Claiming to be committed to safety, Boeing said it awaits word from the FAA and other aviation regulators as to the timeline for the airplane's certification and return to service.
"We believe this decision is least disruptive to maintaining long-term production system and supply chain health," the aerospace biz said in a statement.
"This decision is driven by a number of factors, including the extension of certification into 2020, the uncertainty about the timing and conditions of return to service and global training approvals, and the importance of ensuring that we can prioritize the delivery of stored aircraft."
Airlines that count a significant number of 737 Max planes in their respective fleets may be at least as anxious about seeing Boeing's beleaguered jet declared safe. They're losing revenue by being unable to fly their 737 Max planes.
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Boeing says those working on the 737 Max in its Puget Sound, Washington, facility will either continue what they're doing or will be temporarily reassigned to other teams. The company promised an update when it reports its fourth quarter earnings next month. Its shares fell almost 5 per cent following news of the production suspension.
While the FAA and regulators abroad mull when the 737 Max might be allowed to return to service, the FAA itself has come under Congressional scrutiny for its failure to disclose an internal study that predicted about 15 additional crashes over the expected 45-year-lifespan of the 737 Max model due to the MCAS design flaw.
"Despite its own calculations, the FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the traveling public and let the 737 MAX continue to fly until Boeing could overhaul its MCAS software," said Peter DeFazio (D-OR-04), Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, in a hearing on the 737 Max last week. "Tragically, the FAA’s analysis—which never saw the light of day beyond the closed doors of the FAA and Boeing—was correct."
DeFazio said that back in 1996 he pushed for the removal of the FAA's statutory mandate to "promote" the aviation industry. In light of rumors he cited about pressure among those within the FAA to accommodate airlines and plane makers, he wants the agency to focus on safety and oversight. ®