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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Boeing 737 Max’s reputation will also need repair

A number of Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are parked at Southern California Logistics Airport  in Victorville, California, on March 27, 2109. Southwest Airlines is waiting out a global grounding of MAX 8 and MAX 9 aircraft at the airport. (Tribune News Service)
By Gordon Dickson Fort Worth Star-Telegram

FORT WORTH, Texas – Will the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft be cleared to fly again and, if so, will the traveling public be willing to fly on those airplanes?

Obviously, only time will tell.

However with the aircraft now grounded just more than a month by President Donald Trump’s emergency order in the wake of two overseas crashes that apparently occurred under near-identical circumstances involving the aircraft’s anti-stall sensors, major questions and concerns about the design of the 737 MAX remain.

“My instinct is the flying public is not going to embrace the MAX 8 without a Herculean and highly transparent effort, not only by Boeing, but also regulators, to ensure its safety,” said Mike Slack, an aviation attorney in Fort Worth and a former NASA aerospace engineer. “I don’t know if that bar is attainable. I think the MAX 8 may go onto that pile of airplanes damaged by reputation.”

Boeing officials have pledged to correct the erroneous activation of the maneuvering characteristics augmentation system, which is believed to be a factor in both the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air Flight 610 into the ocean off Indonesia that killed 189 people and March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 that killed 157 people.

“We have the responsibility to eliminate this risk, and we know how to do it,” Dennis Muilenburg, Boeing chief executive officer, said in a statement earlier this month. “Safety is our responsibility, and we own it. When the MAX returns to the skies, we’ve promised our airline customers and their passengers and crews that it will be as safe as any airplane ever to fly.”

Potential summer travel problems

Fort Worth-based American Airlines and Dallas-based Southwest Airlines continue to cancel roughly 150 flights per day, as their 737 MAX aircraft – more than 58 planes between the two corporations – remain idle. American bought 24 of the 737 MAX aircraft and Southwest owns 34 of the planes. The cancellations likely are costing both airlines millions of dollars.

American has extended its cancellation of 737 MAX flights until June 5, and Southwest announced April 11 it has canceled its 737 MAX flights through Aug. 5, meaning both airlines are likely to be dealing with the prickly issue well into the summer travel season.

But American Airlines pilots say that once the 737 MAX is cleared for takeoff, they will have no qualms about stepping into the cockpit. Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the Fort Worth-based Allied Pilots Association, which represents 15,000 American Airlines pilots, pointed out that the American version of the 737 MAX is built with two “angle of attack” displays that provide an extra layer of protection in the event a sensor malfunction.

“The pilots for the world’s largest airline have the necessary training and experience to troubleshoot problems and take decisive actions on the flight deck to protect our passengers and crew,” Tajer said in a statement released after the Ethiopia crash.

But Slack said the Federal Aviation Administration, which was criticized for being among the last aviation safety agencies in the world to ground the Boeing aircraft, should question why the 737 MAX needs to have an automatic pitch correction system. A plane designed from the ground up wouldn’t need such a behind-the-scenes protective measure built into its electronics, he said.

Some critics have said Boeing may have acted hastily in increasing the size of the engines and moving them further forward on the 737 MAX models, a move that made the planes more fuel-efficient but also changed weight distribution.

“One of the problems we have with the system is, why put a system like that on an airplane in the first place?” said Slack, who doesn’t represent any survivors of either the Lion Air or Ethiopia Airlines crashes. “I think what we’re going to find is that because of changes from the (Boeing 737) 800 series to the MAX series, there are dramatic changes in which they put in controls without native pitch stability. It goes to the basic DNA of the airplane. It may not be fixable.”

“It is within the realm of possibility that, if much of the basic pitch stability performance of the plane cannot be addressed by a software fix, a redesign may be required and the MAX might not ever fly,” Slack said.

Winning back trust

Even if the 737 MAX is re-certified as airworthy, Boeing will have to work extra hard to win back the public’s trust, said Brian Richardson, who teaches graduate level crisis communication courses at the University of North Texas in Denton.

“Right now, the narrative is that this is an unsafe plane. Boeing has to create a new narrative, and not a narrative built on spin,” Richardson said. “I’m going to need to see it with my own eyes – what did they do to correct the problem? And, I’m going to need to see comment from aviation experts saying, ‘Yes. I agree with that.’ ”