The Boeing 737 MAX groundings were imposed by airlines and regulators around the world grounding the Boeing 737 MAX passenger airliner in March 2019 after two nearly new 737 MAX 8 aircraft crashed within five months, killing all 346 aboard Lion Air Flight 610 on October 29, 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019. Ethiopian Airlines was first to ground the aircraft, effective March 10. The Civil Aviation Administration of China on March 11, was the first government regulator to ground the MAX.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, certifier of the 737 MAX, reaffirmed its airworthiness on March 11, saying no data was available "to draw any conclusions or take any actions". In the next two days, many airlines and governments worldwide grounded the aircraft. On March 13, the FAA grounded the MAX, citing new evidence from the accident investigations.
Initial reports indicated that the Flight 302 pilot struggled to control the airplane in a manner similar to circumstances of the Lion Air crash. A stabilizer trim jackscrew found in the wreckage was set to put the aircraft into a dive. Experts suggested this evidence further pointed to MCAS as at fault in the crash. After the crash of flight ET302, Ethiopian Airlines spokesman Biniyam Demssie said in an interview that the procedures for disabling the MCAS were just previously incorporated into pilot training. "All the pilots flying the MAX received the training after the Indonesia crash," he said. "There was a directive by Boeing, so they took that training." Ethiopia's transportation minister, Dagmawit Moges, said that initial data from the recovered flight data recorder of Ethiopian Flight 302 shows "clear similarities" with the crash of Lion Air Flight 610.
A preliminary report on the crash indicated the pilots initially followed the correct Boeing procedure for shutting down MCAS and manually trimming the rear stabilizer. This action was ineffective. The pilots then re-enabled the MCAS and eventually lost control of the plane. According to two aviation experts, manually trimming the rear stabilizer might have been ineffective because the manual crank will not work if the control yoke is pulled back due to aerodynamic forces that worsen with increased speed. This, however, applies to the older Boeing 737-200, and is not mentioned in the current 737 training manuals. The Boeing 737 MAX manual explains that once a pilot disengages from the stabilizer trim that they should take manual control of the aircraft, but it does not say they should attempt to turn it back on.
On March 11, 2019, Ethiopian Airlines grounded its 737 MAX 8 fleet "effective yesterday March 10", and the China Civil Aviation Administration became the first government regulator to ground the aircraft, based on its zero tolerance policy for any safety risks. The FAA on March 11 issued a public notice of the 737 MAX's "continued airworthiness". On March 12, as more governments and airlines grounded the airplane or banned it from their airspace, U.S. president Donald Trumptweeted: "Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better." After the tweet, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg spoke by telephone with the president and assured him that the 737 MAX was safe. The FAA stated late on March 12 that it had "no basis to order grounding the aircraft" and no data from other countries to justify such action.
On March 13, in a policy reversal for both countries, Canada and the U.S. grounded the aircraft. Canada announced its decision first, saying it received new data suggesting similarity between the crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia. Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau reportedly contacted his U.S. counterpart, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, directly to inform her of his decision. Hours later, the U.S. said it was grounding the aircraft. The U.S. president made the announcement, following consultation among himself, Chao, acting FAA administrator Daniel Elwell and Boeing CEO Muilenburg. The FAA issued an official grounding order, which stated that new information from the wreckage in Ethiopia and refined satellite tracking data indicated the "possibility of a shared cause for the two incidents". The U.S., Canadian, and Chinese regulators oversee a combined fleet of 196 aircraft, nearly half of all 387 airplanes delivered.
China: The Civil Aviation Administration of China orders all domestic airlines to suspend operations of all 737 MAX 8 aircraft by 18:00 local time (10:00 GMT), pending the results of the investigation, thus grounding all 96 Boeing 737 MAX planes (c. 25% of all delivered) in China.
Indonesia: Nine hours after China's grounding, the Indonesian Ministry of Transportation issued a temporary suspension on the operation of all eleven 737 MAX 8 aircraft in Indonesia. A nationwide inspection on the type was expected to take place on March 12 to "ensure that aircraft operating in Indonesia are in an airworthy condition".
Turkey: Turkish Civil Aviation Authority suspended flights of 737 MAX 8 and 9 type aircraft being operated by Turkish companies in Turkey, and stated that they are also reviewing the possibility of closing the country's airspace for the same.
South Korea: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport (MOLIT) advised Eastar Jet, the only airline of South Korea to possess Boeing 737 MAX aircraft to ground their models, and three days later issued a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) message to block all Boeing 737 MAX models from landing and departing from all domestic airports.
Europe: The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) suspended all flight operations of all 737-8 MAX and 737-9 MAX in Europe. In addition, EASA published a Safety Directive, effective as of 19:00 UTC, suspending all commercial flights performed by third-country operators into, within or out of the EU of the above mentioned models
Canada: Minister of TransportMarc Garneau, prompted by receipt of new information, said "There can't be any MAX 8 or MAX 9 flying into, out of or across Canada", effectively grounding all 737 MAX aircraft in Canadian airspace.
United States: PresidentDonald Trump announced on March 13, that United States authorities would ground all 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft in the United States. After the President's announcement, the FAA officially ordered the grounding of all 737 MAX 8 and 9 operated by U.S. airlines or in the United States airspace. The FAA did allow airliners to make ferry flights without passengers or flight attendants in order to reposition the aircraft in central locations.
About 30 of the 737 MAX aircraft were flying in U.S. airspace when the FAA grounding order was announced. The airplanes were allowed to continue to their destinations and were then grounded. In Europe, several flights were diverted when grounding orders were issued. For example, an Israel-bound Norwegian Airlines 737 MAX aircraft returned to Stockholm, and two Turkish Airlines MAX aircraft flying to Britain, one to Gatwick Airport south of London and the other to Birmingham, turned around without landing and flew back to Turkey.
The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) Inspector General opened an investigation into FAA approval of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft series, focusing on potential failures in the safety-review and certification process. The day after the Ethiopian Airlines crash, a federal grand jury issued a subpoena on behalf of the U.S. Justice Department for documents related to development of the 737 MAX. By April, airline users of the 737 MAX announced daily flight cancellations that were expected to extend through August 2019. Several airlines demanded compensation from Boeing for the cost of the groundings, while others cancelled their orders for the MAX 8. Boeing said its cost for the grounding would be as much as $1 billion in the first fiscal quarter. By March 23 the stock had lost 18% of its value.
Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS)
The newly introduced Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) came under scrutiny in both accidents. MCAS is a supplementary automated flight control system installed only on the 737 MAX, and in published reports it is widely called an "anti-stall" system. Boeing disputes that description, calling MCAS a system that provides pilots with aircraft handling qualities similar to previous 737 versions. Under certain flight conditions and without pilot action, MCAS automatically lowers the nose of the aircraft when it determines that the upward pitch of the aircraft may become too steep, based on input from sensors. The system uses airspeed, altitude and angle of attack (AoA) to determine when to activate. Both aircraft experienced extreme fluctuations in vertical speed, as shown by publicly available satellite data, and the Ethiopian airplane crashed at a steep nose-down angle. Pilots in both aircraft reported flight control problems and requested permission to return to the airport.
On April 4, 2019 Boeing publicly acknowledged that MCAS played a role in both accidents and described an upcoming software update that would prevent the possibility of unintended MCAS activation. Boeing also said it would upgrade the cockpit display to give pilots a better indication of MCAS status and would improve pilot training materials.
In a private meeting November 27 after the Lion Air accident, American Airlines pilots pressed Boeing managers to develop an urgent fix for MCAS and suggested that the FAA require a safety review which could have grounded the airplanes. A recording of the meeting revealed pilots' anger that they were not informed about MCAS. One pilot was heard saying, "We flat out deserve to know what is on our airplanes." Boeing vice president Mike Sinnett explained that the company did not want to make changes in a rush, because of uncertainty whether the Lion Air accident was related to MCAS. Sinnett said Boeing expected pilots to be able to handle any control problems.
In addition, the U.S. Aviation Safety Reporting System received messages about the 737 MAX from U.S. pilots in November 2018, including one from a captain who "expressed concern that some systems such as the MCAS are not fully described in the aircraft Flight Manual." U.S. pilots also complained about the way the 737 MAX performed, including claims of problems similar to those reported about the Lion Air crash. Pilots of at least two U.S. flights in 2018 reported the nose of the 737 MAX pitched down suddenly when they engaged the autopilot. The FAA stated in response that "Some of the reports reference possible issues with the autopilot/autothrottle, which is a separate system from MCAS, and/or acknowledge the problems could have been due to pilot error."
The impetus for Boeing to build the 737 MAX was serious competition from the Airbus A320neo, which was a threat to win a major order for aircraft from American Airlines, a traditional customer for Boeing airplanes. To avoid losing business, Boeing decided to update its venerable 737, rather than designing and building a brand-new airplane, which could take years longer. Boeing's goal was to ensure the 737 MAX would not need a new type rating, which would require significant additional pilot training, adding unacceptably to the overall cost of the airplane for customers. Boeing considered MCAS integral to the flight control system and did not include a description of the system in the flight manual, in keeping with the concept that the MAX was not a different type of airplane than the preceding version, the 737NG. Chief executive Dai Whittingham of the independent trade group UK Flight Safety Committee disputed that idea, saying the 737 MAX "is a different body and aircraft but certifiers gave it the same type rating."
During design and construction of the MAX, the FAA delegated a large amount of safety assessments to Boeing itself, a practice that had been standard for years, but several FAA insiders believed the delegation went too far.
On March 17, 2019, aviation engineers familiar with Boeing's safety analysis of MCAS, told The Seattle Times the safety analysis was flawed:
it downplayed its capability of pushing down the plane nose to avert a stall;
after the Lion Air crash, Boeing informed the airlines the MCAS could deflect the tail up to 2.5°, up from the 0.6° told to the FAA in the safety assessment;
MCAS could reset itself after each pilot response to repeatedly pitch the aircraft down;
On April 2, 2019, after receiving reports from whistleblowers regarding the training of FAA inspectors who reviewed the 737 MAX type certificate, the Senate Commerce Committee launched a second Congressional investigation; it focuses on FAA training of the inspectors.
On April 19, it was announced that experts from nine civil aviation authorities would investigate how MCAS was approved by the FAA, if changes need to be made in the FAA's approval process and whether the design of MCAS complies with regulations.
On May 15, during a senate hearing, FAA acting administrator Daniel Elwell defended their certification process of Boeing aircraft. However the FAA criticized Boeing for not mentioning the MCAS in the 737 MAX's manuals. Representative Rick Larsen responded saying that "the FAA needs to fix its credibility problem" and that the committee would assist them in doing so.
A parking lot at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, filled with undelivered aircraft
Boeing issued a brief statement after each crash, saying it was "deeply saddened" by the loss of life and offered its "heartfelt sympathies to the families and loved ones" of the passengers and crews. It said it was helping with the Lion Air investigation and sending a technical team to assist in the Ethiopia investigation. As non-U.S. countries and airlines began grounding the 737 MAX, Boeing stated: "at this point, based on the information available, we do not have any basis to issue new guidance to operators." Boeing said "in light of" the Ethiopian Airlines crash, the company would postpone the scheduled March 13 public rollout ceremony for the first completed Boeing 777X.
On March 11, Boeing announced it was working on upgrades to the MCAS flight control software, cockpit displays, operation manuals and crew training.
Based on satellite tracking data, aviation experts believed MCAS may have been deployed erroneously during both crashes. Boeing said the upgrades were partly in response to the first crash, Lion Air, but not to the Ethiopian Airlines crash, and were to be deployed in coming weeks and would be made mandatory by an FAA Airworthiness Directive.
In response to the FAA grounding the MAX aircraft on March 13, Boeing said it "continues to have full confidence in the safety of the 737 MAX. However, after consultation with the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and aviation authorities and its customers around the world, Boeing has determined — out of an abundance of caution and in order to reassure the flying public of the aircraft's safety — to recommend to the FAA the temporary suspension of operations of the entire global fleet of 371 737 MAX aircraft."
On March 14, Boeing stated it would continue production of the 737 MAX series but was suspending deliveries to customers. On April 5, the company announced it was temporarily cutting production of the 737 aircraft from 52 per month to 42 from mid-April.
On March 14, Boeing said that pilots can always use manual trim control to override software commands, and that both its Flight Crew Operations Manual and November 6 bulletin offer detailed procedures for handling incorrect angle-of-attack readings. The FAA stated it anticipated clearing the software update by March 25, 2019, allowing Boeing to distribute it to the grounded fleets. On April 1, the FAA announced the software upgrade was delayed because more work was necessary. On April 11, Boeing said it had completed 96 test flights with the updated software.
On April 4, 2019, Boeing CEODennis Muilenburg acknowledged that MCAS played a role in both crashes. His comments came in response to public release of preliminary results of the Ethiopian Airlines accident investigation. Muilenburg stated it was "apparent that in both flights" MCAS activated due to "erroneous angle of attack information." He said the MCAS software update and additional training and information for pilots would "eliminate the possibility of unintended MCAS activation and prevent an MCAS-related accident from ever happening again". On April 24, 2019 he said the aircraft was properly designed and certificated, and he asserted "there is no technical slip or gap here". He said in the accidents there were "actions or actions not taken that contributed to the final outcome". On April 29, he said the pilots did not "completely" follow the procedures that Boeing had outlined. He said Boeing was working to make the airplane even safer.
On May 5, a Boeing statement said, "Neither the angle of attack indicator nor the AOA Disagree alert are necessary for the safe operation of the airplane. They provide supplemental information only, and have never been considered safety features on commercial jet transport airplanes."
A March 2019 poll suggested that 53% of American adults would not want to fly on a 737 MAX plane if the aircraft were to be cleared by the FAA the following week.
Retired airline captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, who gained fame in the Miracle on the Hudson accident in 2009, sharply criticized Boeing and the FAA, saying they "have been found wanting in this ugly saga". He said the overly "cozy relationship" between the aviation industry and government was seen when the Boeing CEO "reached out to the U.S. President to try to keep the 737 Max 8 from being grounded". He also lamented understaffing and underfunding of the FAA. He said that good business means that "it is always better and cheaper to do it right instead of doing it wrong and trying to repair the damage after the fact, and when lives are lost, there is no way to repair the damage."
Airline demands for compensation
On March 13, Norwegian Air became the first airline publicly demanding compensation from Boeing for the costs of the groundings of the 737 MAX. CEO Bjørn Kjos said, "It is quite obvious we will not take the cost related to the new aircraft that we have to park temporarily, we will send this bill to those who produce this aircraft." India's SpiceJet also announced that they will seek compensation from Boeing. A senior official said, "We will seek compensation from Boeing for the grounding of the aircraft. We will also seek recompense for revenue loss and any kind of maintenance or technical overhaul that the aircraft will have to undergo. This is part of the contract, which we signed with Boeing for all the 737 MAX aircraft." On April 10 state-owned China Eastern Airlines requested compensation from Boeing over the disruptions.
Litigation on behalf of deceased passengers
Unlike the maximum claim by a passenger against an airline, which is limited by international treaty, claims against the manufacturer are not subject to a preset limit. Representatives of passengers on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 may be able to argue that Boeing knew, or should have known or contemplated, the risk of a crash from knowledge of MCAS and previous issues, including the earlier Lion Air crash, potentially opening a route to punitive damages. According to lawyers involved in passenger claims, the U.S. legal structure for damage claims is often plaintiff-friendly, and Boeing may therefore attempt to argue that claims on behalf of deceased passengers should be heard in other countries.
At the time of the grounding, Boeing had 4,636 unfilled orders worldwide for the 737 MAX. Following the grounding, Boeing suspended deliveries of 737 MAX aircraft to customers, but did not halt production of the aircraft. Analysts estimated that each month of the grounding could result in a delay of $1.8 billion in revenue to the company. The total magnitude of the unfilled orders was estimated at $600 billion.
The first announcement by a customer of plans to cancel an order came on March 11, the day after Ethiopian Airlines crash. Lion Air reportedly planned to drop a $22 billion order with Boeing in favor of Airbus aircraft. The first confirmed cancellation was announced on March 14 when Indonesian flag carrier Garuda Indonesia announced the cancellation of 49 orders for the aircraft, citing "concerns on the safety of passengers". Garuda stated that it was talking to Boeing about whether to return the single aircraft already received and to replace the 737 MAX order with a different Boeing model, not necessarily replacing Boeing as its supplier. On March 22, Garuda Indonesia's spokesperson Ikhsan Rosan said "Our passengers have lost confidence to fly with the Max 8."
On April 30, Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said the 737 MAX grounding "is not changing the mid- to long-term picture" as "[Airbus is] limited by the supply chain": it should reach a monthly A320 production rate of 60 by mid-2019 before 63 in 2021 while Boeing reduced MAX monthly output to 42 from 52.
On April 8, 2019, Bank of America downgraded Boeing's stock after production of the 737 MAX was reduced.
On April 10, a class action lawsuit was filed against Boeing in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois by a shareholder who accused the company of "covering up safety problems with its 737 Max".
On April 24, Boeing released their first-quarter results. The company announced that the grounding of the 737 MAX would cost as much as $1billion. It consequently suspended its stock buyback program and announced that the previously released earnings forecasts, which were compiled prior to the grounding, were no longer valid and new forecasts will be released in the future. Boeing also blamed the grounding for a 21% drop in quarterly profits relative to the quarterly profits from the previous year.
On May 7, Barclays downgraded Boeing stock after conducting a passenger survey that showed nearly half those polled would not fly on the airplane for a year or more after it returns to service.
Return to service
On April 1, 2019, the FAA said Boeing's software fix for 737 MAX was still weeks away from delivery to FAA. Boeing previously told the public it was awaiting certification on the new software by the end of March. On April 24, 2019, Boeing projected that the 737 MAX would resume flying in July 2019. The company said it performed 96 test flights, totaling 159 hours.
For fleet scheduling and flight booking purposes, Southwest and American Airlines expect the 737 MAX to remain grounded (and flights canceled) until August 2019. United Airlines expected its 737 MAX's to remain grounded until July. Air Canada, which initially grounded its 737 MAX's until July, pushed the resumption to August 2019.
International agreements allow for aviation regulatory agencies worldwide to certify an aircraft type based on the certification of the regulatory agency where the aircraft is built, and not review those certifications in much detail. The Boeing 737 MAX series is certified by the U.S. FAA, and a return to service locally and internationally requires updated certification by the FAA first. The European Aviation Safety Agency and Transport Canada announced they will do their own safety verifications before letting the 737 MAX fly again in their territories, and will no longer accept the United States FAA certification as is for this aircraft. Boeing announced it would make an additional safety feature on the plane model standard. The FAA was seeking consensus with other regulators to approve the return to service to avoid suspicion of undue cooperation with Boeing.
On May 16, 2019, Boeing announced that it had completed the software update and is awaiting approval from the FAA.