As a general rule, if you need an act of Congress to make sure you don’t lose billions of dollars, then you are not in an ideal position. This, however, is exactly where Boeing finds itself if it wants to get the smallest and largest 737 MAX airplanes — the 7 and the 10 — into commercial service. There was a chance that Boeing could have escaped this fate, but the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has now firmly stated that won’t happen, and it says it’s all Boeing’s fault.
The 737 MAX was designed to have, let’s say, 4 1/2 variants. Those are:
- 737 MAX 7 – ~153 seats in standard 2-class configuration
- 737 MAX 8 – ~178 seats in standard 2-class configuration
- 737 MAX 8-200 – ~197 seats in all-coach configuration that will make your knees bleed
- 737 MAX 9 – ~193 seats in standard 2-class configuration
- 737 MAX 10 – ~204 seats in standard 2-class configuration
You can see why I consider the MAX 8-200 a half variant. It’s a MAX 8 with one additional pair of doors to allow for the increased number of people to be able evacuate fast enough in case of emergency.
Of these models, the MAX 8, MAX 8-200, and MAX 9 have been certified and are flying regularly with airlines all over the world. The MAX 7 and MAX 10 are still awaiting FAA certification, and they are bumping up against a significant deadline that Boeing is now going to miss.
It all goes back to the original deadly design of the MAX’s MCAS system which continuously tried to crash the airplane in certain situations, something it tragically succeeded at doing… twice. Out of that, two things were learned that have a direct impact on the MAX 7 and MAX 10 certification.
First, the FAA was simply not doing its job. It had basically handed over the keys to Boeing to self-certify in certain areas. To call the oversight lax would likely be an understatement. Second, the 737’s lack of an Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System (EICAS) created confusion in the cockpit as the pilots tried to isolate exactly what was happening. The feds wanted to fix both these things.
The FAA has already been given the mandate to step up certification processes, and it has most certainly raised the bar since the original MAX certification. Whether it’s a good method or not now is neither here nor there. It’s just a lot more work to get certified now.
As for the EICAS, well, there has long been a push toward having that system on airplanes. In fact, the 737 is the only airplane Boeing still sells that has no EICAS onboard. It came to light during the two MAX accidents that the various problems and failures helped overwhelm the crew. With all the different caution lights going off, it wasn’t easy to make sense of exactly what was happening. The beauty of the EICAS is that it can organize the failures all in an easy-to-understand way. Here’s a sample:
So why doesn’t the 737 have an EICAS? Because it’s really, really old. Remember, the 737 dates back to 1967, and there was no such thing as an EICAS back then. Boeing has continued to stretch the 737 in ways never thought possible, and the biggest reason for doing that is that it has been able to keep commonality between the airplanes to minimize training and allow pilots to seamlessly switch between the different 737 models.
After seeing how this old tech — or lack thereof — contributed to the MAX accidents, Congress decided to take action. In late 2020, it passed the Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act. This required all aircraft certified two years or more after the bill passed to have an EICAS, or as the bill describes it, a “crew alerting system.” That day is rapidly approaching.
The idea at the time was this would give Boeing enough time to get the whole MAX family certified and then Boeing would finally have to create a new narrowbody when the time came for the next version. But what it didn’t take into account is that the regulatory process would get a lot tougher and more time-consuming.
Concern has been growing that the MAX 7 and MAX 10 would not be able to get certified in time. Now that is all but certain.
The FAA sent what the Seattle Times called a “scathing letter” to Boeing. In it, the FAA raked Boeing over the coals, explaining that it told Boeing it had to submit the remaining System Safety Assessments for the MAX 7 by mid-September to have a chance of getting it certified. As of mid-September, however, Boeing still hadn’t submitted anything for 6 of the required SSAs, and only 10 percent of the total had been accepted by the FAA.
So it is not happening this year.
Now, the path gets cloudy. Options appear to be:
- Get Congress to pass a bill extending the deadline for certifying an airplane without an EICAS
- Have Boeing modify the new models to have an EICAS
- Have Boeing scrap the 7 and 10, something Boeing’s CEO has threatened, at least for the 10
The last option sounds like a hollow threat to me. Would Boeing really scrap the plane? I can’t imagine it would. Instead, this just sounds like the company is throwing a tantrum.
Southwest’s pilots have come out in favor of extending the deadline so that the MAX 7s (and 10s) can have the same alerting system as the other 737s.
Interestingly, the Allied Pilots Association (APA) — American’s pilots union — has come out against any sort of Congressional extension. Is it coincidental that American is the only one of the big four airlines in the US that does not have MAX 7 or MAX 10 aircraft on order? Nah, I mean, APA doesn’t seem to like helping the company anyway. Instead, APA President Edward Sicher explained it this way:
We oppose any extension of the exemption and don’t agree with Boeing’s claim that pilots could become confused when moving from an airplane without the modern alert system to one that is equipped with it. Nothing could be further from our flight deck reality,” Capt. Sicher said. “Consider the Boeing 757 and Boeing 767 – they’re substantially different airplanes, yet operate under a single certificate. Pilots have routinely flown both on the same day without any confusion.
That would certainly be an easier out. If Boeing could install some sort of EICAS in the MAX 7 and MAX 10 airplanes, APA says they can still get the benefit of the common type rating. Maybe, maybe not, but either way, it would be costly for Boeing to make those changes, so it obviously doesn’t like that option.
Either way, all we know now is that deliveries of these airplanes are in limbo. They are already long-delayed.
The MAX 7 has very few orders as it is, but there is one very important customer that Boeing needs to satisfy: Southwest Airlines. According to Cirium data, Southwest has 160 on order. This is the replacement for the 737-700s as they reach retirement age. So far, Southwest has been taking MAX 8s instead since it has no other option. Allegiant has another 30 of the MAX 7s on order.
The MAX 10, well, that’s a bigger issue for the airline. Cirium data shows the following airlines with at least 20 on order:
- Alaska – 60
- Delta – 100
- flyDubai – 25
- Gol – 30
- Lion Air – 50
- Qatar – 25
- Spicejet – 20
- United – 237
- VietJet – 80
- Virgin Australia – 25
- WestJet – 42
Their orders will remain in limbo while all this plays out. If Congress doesn’t come through with an extension, these airlines may have to go with the MAX 9… or they could just move to the A321neo, something I’m sure Airbus would thoroughly enjoy.
But I’m still betting on Congress doing something. Boeing is too big and has very deep pockets. It will probably find enough people in Congress to do what it wants. Sen Roger Wicker (R-MS) has already tacked on an extension to another bill, hoping to slide it through. It’s not clear how much support this has now, but in the end, I still expect Boeing will prevail, whether that’s a good thing or not.