Very soon – perhaps this week – the US Federal Aviation Administration is expected to declare Boeing’s 737 Max safe to fly again in America’s skies, lifting nearly two years of compulsory grounding.
Such an event would normally be a subject of press fanfare, but Covid-19’s near-immobilisation of commercial air transport activity worldwide has rendered the Max’s long grounding almost invisible to the non-specialist media and the public.
The airlines have been able to work not only without the 387 Maxes already delivered, but without the additional 450 that have rolled off Boeing’s Renton, Washington production line since then – only to be delivered straight into desert storage.
The changes being applied – at the FAA’s behest – to this latest version of the highly successful 737 series are partly to correct design flaws that allowed two notorious fatal crashes to occur, but some additional modifications will bring the type fully in line with modern safety regulations that this marque had previously been permitted to avoid under “grandfather rights”.
Once the Max fleet had been grounded, it made sense to incorporate not only the changes required to make it safe, but also improvements that would prolong the marque’s commercial desirability for as long as possible. That is essential because Boeing’s next product in this market sector will be entirely new, and will not be launched for some years.
The truth is that the 737 line has reached the end of its viable development life, but given the fact that it has been in continuous production since 1966 through four iterations, that should not be too surprising.
Basically, the Max marque was intended as a stop-gap while Boeing came up with a “new mid-market airplane”, but when the Max hit the marketplace it was astoundingly successful. Its price was right, its economics excellent, its delivery guaranteed, and it was a known and trusted quantity. And all this despite the fact that it is an old fashioned, mechanically controlled machine surrounded by digitally controlled competition.
This relaunch of the Max into an airline world decimated by Covid-19 is going to be watched with bated breath, not just by Boeing, but by the whole industry.
Public perception of the aircraft is key. Will they see it as safe? Will it be safe?
As soon as the FAA announces the detail of its decision, the answers will be here.