The 737 MAX certification travesty quite literally has left blood on the hands of both Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), and that has resulted in the company and the agency each taking a deep internal look to fix the root of the problem. But now, there’s a new issue… all of this tumult has resulted in significant delays to certification of new aircraft and even trouble with existing ones. This combined with a likely overcorrection by the FAA means airlines are not getting their airplanes when they need them. And they are really pissed off.
I don’t need to rehash the MAX disaster in detail, but I will summarize. The aircraft was certified with a woefully-underdeveloped MCAS system that, if a single sensor detected speed improperly, would try to plunge the airplane into the ground. It succeeded twice, both with Lion Air 610 on October 29, 2018 and Ethiopian 302 on March 10, 2019. A combined 346 people lost their lives due to an entirely preventable failure.
Despite early attempts to blame poor pilot training, the blame eventually landed exactly where it should have. First, Boeing was rightly raked over the coals for a shockingly sloppy design. The MCAS should never have been programmed to function off a single sensor’s reading without any redundancy. It also shouldn’t have been designed to repeatedly engage time and time again. While Boeing absolutely made several fatal mistakes in its design, the fault also falls on to the FAA, which certified the aircraft in the first place.
It didn’t take long for the certification process to fall under fire, noting that the FAA was not regulating Boeing nearly enough, instead basically giving the company carte blanche to certify itself. There was too much trust in a process that was flawed to begin with.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, formerly an exec with Delta, promised to fix the organization, and that means things have slowed down dramatically. But before I get into that, I have to preface this by saying that all of the conspiracy theories out there ring hollow to me. Yes, Steve Dickson was previously an exec with Delta. No, Delta does not have any Boeing aircraft on order from the manufacturer. And no, I don’t think he’s doing anything to help his former employer by negatively impacting its competitors. That would be madness. He’s simply trying to be thorough and seemingly doing too good of a job in that regard.
So where do we stand today? Well, when it comes to passenger airplanes, Boeing can only deliver the 737 MAX 8/9 and the 777-300ER. That’s it now that the last passenger 747-8 has left the factory. Yes, MAX 8s and 9s are flying out of the factory, finally, but this means the 737 MAX 7, the MAX 10, and the 787s all can’t be delivered, and that is not going over well.
737 MAX 7 and MAX 10
The 737 MAX 7 is the smallest version of the MAX family, and it is only slightly larger than the 737-700. This airplane was a one-airline show until recently. Southwest has over 200 on order and has decided this will be the replacement for the -700s — with 150 vs 143 seats — as they continue to age. The only other significant order came from WestJet for 13 of the airplanes… until Allegiant, which we just discussed yesterday. It has 30 coming with options for more.
The MAX 7 is basically the MAX 8 with a shorter body and longer range. It has some other differences, but as I understand it, it was similar enough to the MAX 8 that it was used for part of the certification work for that airplane.
Southwest had hoped to have the MAX 7 flying long ago, but here we are in 2022 and the FAA still has not certified the airplane. You will be shocked to know that Southwest is very unhappy about this. As still-CEO Gary Kelly said in an interview with Bloomberg, “Frustration is the right word. It’s a different regulatory environment. A lot of duties that used to be delegated are vested with the FAA, and they are just getting used to that.”
The article also notes that Southwest is now hoping for certification in the first quarter of this year, but then it’ll take several months to put the airplane into service.
At the other end of the spectrum, we have the 737 MAX 10 caught in the same mess. This is the largest aircraft in the MAX family with a length that’s not even 12 feet shy of a 757-200. It’ll seat around 200 in a regular two-class configuration. This aircraft has a whole lot more orders with United leading the way with just over 250. According to ch-aviation, VietJetAir has 106 on order, flydubai and Lion Air both have 50, and both Gol and Virgin Australia have 25.
The MAX delays seem to sit more squarely on the FAA than on Boeing at this point. I can’t quite understand what the hold up is, but it doesn’t seem like there’s any substantial concern about the aircraft. It’s just bureaucracy and overconcern about the FAA’s role. This is very different than what’s happening to the 787.
The first 787 was delivered in 2011, and there have been more than 1,000 delivered ever since. In 2019, more than 150 were delivered, but then in October 2020, the spigot shut off. In the 15 months since that time, only 14 airplanes have been delivered. What’s going on? So, so much. This podcast from Aviation Week tells the story well.
There are several issues here, but the biggest one seems to be the tiny amount of space between parts where there is a major join on the aircraft. There is always space between parts, but it is virtually imperceptible. Apparently Boeing ran into problems where it wasn’t exactly to spec, so it had to fix and then do more inspections. That kept finding more gaps that were out of conformance in different areas, and now they basically go over every airplane with a fine-toothed comb.
Apparently this is not a safety of flight issue, and so all those airplanes that are flying today can keep flying. The bigger issue, according to the podcast, appears to be that this can reduce the life of the airframe, and that is not going to be ok with Boeing’s customers. Boeing needs to get its act together in this regard, and then the FAA needs to let them start delivering airplanes again. It’s unclear when that logjam might clear, but until that happens, it’s bad news.
This is why American had to slash its summer schedule this year. It simply can’t get the 787s it needs. It is not happy, and it is not alone.
The final piece of the puzzle is the 777X, the behemoth that is larger than a 777 but smaller than a 747. There are over 300 of these airplanes on order, with Emirates taking up more than 100. Qatar has 60, Singapore has 31, and there are plenty of others with less than that.
This is a new airplane, and the entry into service continues to slip. Boeing is now predicting the airplane will be 3 years late, in service by late 2023. And even that may be too soon in reality.
According to Boeing, the FAA went back and looked at the airplane and asked for some changes to be considered. In other words, the FAA is again covering its bases, showing that it has done its job, at least outwardly. And now Boeing is planning to just test the hell out of this airplane so it can get into service and not have further trouble.
Guess who isn’t happy about this? Emirates. The 777X is a big airplane that will be a great eventual replacement for the A380. But Emirates wants those airplanes now, and continues to hammer on Boeing for failing to deliver as promised. That’s a tough stance considering that Boeing seems to be stuck on this one, waiting for the FAA to be satisfied. Who knows when that might happen.
You can certainly say some of this is Boeing’s own fault, because, well, it absolutely is. But it does seem like the FAA has overcorrected after its MAX failure, and that is putting a real squeeze on Boeing’s customers. They aren’t happy. In the future, it seems manufacturers are just going to have to accept longer development timelines as part of the cost of doing business. For now, Boeing is caught in the middle.