FAA lifts Boeing 737 Max grounding order

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Two Boeing 737 Max eights crashed, eliminating 346 individuals.


Boeing

Twenty months after it grounded the Boeing 737 Max over a set of crashes in 2018 and 2019 that eliminated 346 individuals, the Federal Aviation Administration has actually cleared the beleaguered airplane to go back to go back to the sky. As part of the choice the company has actually bought Boeing and airline companies to make repair work to a flight control system blamed for both crashes and boost pilot training. 

The Max can’t really bring travelers till those actions are finished, and other reports have actually recognized other possible issues with the airliner’s flight control computer system, electrical wiring and engines. Airlines running the Max, nevertheless, are pressing ahead with strategies to include the Max back into their fleets by the end of the year. 

For now the FAA’s order impacts just the United States. Aviation security companies in Canada, Brazil and the European Union are performing their own evaluations of the aircraft. Until those are finished, the 737 Max will stay grounded in some locations.

The advancements have actually been a substantial blow to Boeing, which has countless 737 Max orders on its books. Even once it’s flying once again worldwide, the business will need to work strongly to keep the trust of airline companies and the flying public for the Max household. Here’s whatever else we understand about the airliner up until now. 

What occurred in the 2 crashes?

In the very first crash, on Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air flight 610 dove into the Java Sea 13 minutes after launch from Jakarta, Indonesia, killing 189 individuals. The flight team made a distress signal soon prior to losing control. That airplane was practically new, having actually gotten to Lion Air 3 months previously. 

The 2nd crash took place on March 10, 2019 when Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 left Addis Ababa Bole International Airport bound for Nairobi, Kenya. Just after launch, the pilot radioed a distress signal and was offered instant clearance to return and land. But prior to the team might make it back, the airplane crashed 40 miles from the airport, 6 minutes after it left the runway. Aboard were 149 travelers and 8 team members. The airplane included was just 4 months old. 

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The 737 Max 9, revealed here at the 2016 Paris Air Show, is a bigger variation of the Max 8, however with the very same piloting system that’s under examination.


Kent German/CNET

What is the Boeing 737 Max?

Built to take on the Airbus A320neo, the 737 Max is a household of business airplane that includes 4 designs. The Max 8, which is the most popular variation, made its very first flight on Jan. 29, 2016, and got in traveler service with Malaysia’s Malindo Air on May 22, 2017. (Malindo no longer flew the aircraft by the time of the very first crash.) Seating in between 162 and 210 travelers, depending upon the setup, it’s developed for brief- and medium-haul paths, however likewise has the variety (3,550 nautical miles, or about 4,085 miles) to fly transatlantic and in between the mainland United States and Hawaii. The bigger Max 9 very first flew in 2017, and the Max 10 has yet to fly (it made its official launching Nov. 22, 2019). The smaller sized 737 Max 7 flew for the very first time in May 2018.

The style of the 737 Max series is based upon the Boeing 737, an airplane series that has actually remained in service because 1968. As an entire, the 737 household is the very popular airliner in history. At any offered time, countless some variation of it are air-borne around the globe and some airline companies, like Southwest and Ryanair, have all-737 fleets. If you have actually flown even periodically, you have actually probably flown on a 737.

What’s various about the 737 Max series compared to earlier 737s?

The 737 Max can fly further and bring more individuals than the previous generation of 737s, like the 737-800 and 737-900. It likewise has actually enhanced aerodynamics and a revamped cabin interior and flies on larger, more effective and more effective CFM LEAP engines. CFM is a joint endeavor in between General Electric and France’s Safran.

Those engines, however, needed Boeing to make important style modifications. Because they’re larger, and due to the fact that the 737 sits so low to the ground (a purposeful 737 style option to let it serve little airports with minimal ground devices), Boeing moved the engines somewhat forward and raised them greater under the wing. (If you position an engine too close to the ground, it can absorb particles while the aircraft is cabbing.) That modification permitted Boeing to accommodate the engines without totally upgrading the 737 fuselage — a fuselage that hasn’t altered much in 50 years.

But the brand-new position of the engines altered how the airplane dealt with in the air, producing the capacity for the nose to pitch up throughout flight. A pitched nose is an issue in flight — raise it expensive and an airplane can stall. To keep the nose in trim, Boeing developed software application called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS. When a sensing unit on the fuselage spots that the nose is expensive, MCAS instantly presses the nose down. (For background on MCAS, checked out these outstanding extensive stories from The Air Current and The Seattle Times.) 

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Compared with previous variations of the 737, the Max’s engines sit further forward and greater up on the underwing pylons.


Andrew Hoyle/CNET

What triggered the crashes?

Planes crashed hardly ever have a single element, which holds true here. On Oct. 25, 2019, the Indonesian National Transportation Safety Committee released its last report on the Lion Air crash. The report recognizes 9 elements that added to the crash, however mainly blames MCAS. Before crashing, the Lion Air pilots were not able to identify their real airspeed and elevation and they had a hard time to take control of the aircraft as it oscillated for about 10 minutes. Each time they brought up from a dive, MCAS pressed the nose down once again. 

“The MCAS function was not a fail-safe design and did not include redundancy,” the report stated. Investigators likewise discovered that MCAS depend on just one sensing unit, which had a fault, and flight teams had not been sufficiently trained to utilize the system. Improper upkeep treatments, confusion in the cockpit and the absence of a cockpit caution light (see next concern) added to the crash, also.

On March 9, 2020, practically one year to the day because the crash in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Bureau released an interim analysis. Like the Indonesian findings, it mentions style defects with MCAS such its dependence on a single angle-of-attack sensing unit. It likewise blamed Boeing for offering insufficient training to team on utilizing the Max’s special systems. (The Seattle Times has a terrific deep dive on the report.)

Unlike their Indonesian equivalents, the Ethiopian private investigators do not discuss upkeep issues with the aircraft nor does it blame the flight team. “The aircraft has a valid certificate of airworthiness and maintained in accordance with applicable regulations and procedures,” the report stated. “There were no known technical problems before departure.” 

Until Ethiopia launches another report, keep in mind that crash examinations are significantly intricate — it takes months to assess the proof and identify a likely cause. Investigators needs to analyze the particles, study the flight recorders and, if possible, examine the victims’ bodies to identify the cause of death. They likewise include several celebrations consisting of the airline company, the aircraft and engine producers, and air travel regulative companies.

When was the Max grounded?

About 30 airline companies ran the Max by the time of the 2nd crash (the 3 biggest clients being Southwest Airlines, American Airlines and Air Canada). Most of them rapidly grounded their airplanes a couple of days later on. Besides the airline companies currently pointed out that list consists of United Airlines, WestJet, Aeromexico, Aerolíneas Argentinas, GOL Linhas Aéreas, Turkish Airlines, FlyDubai, Air China, Copa Airlines, Norwegian, Hainan Airlines, Fiji Airways and Royal Air Maroc.

More than 40 nations have actually likewise prohibited the 737 Max from flying in their airspace. China (a substantial Boeing consumer and a fast-growing business air travel market) blazed a trail and was signed up with by Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, India, Oman, the European Union and Singapore. Canada at first thought twice, however quickly reversed course.

Up till March 13, 2019, the FAA likewise decreased to release a grounding order, stating in a declaration tweeted the previous day that there was “no basis to order grounding the aircraft.” That was in spite of a public protest from a group of senators and 2 flight attendant unions. But following President Trump’s choice to ground the Max that day, the company mentioned new evidence it had actually gathered and examined. 

Older 737 designs, like the 737-700, 737-800 and 737-900, do not utilize MCAS and aren’t impacted. 

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Of the 4 737 Max variations, just the Max 10 has yet to fly.


Boeing

What was the issue with the caution light?

The Air Current reported March 12, 2019 that the Lion Air aircraft did not have a caution light developed to notify pilots to the malfunctioning sensing unit which Boeing offered the light as part of an optional plan of devices. When inquired about the caution light, a Boeing spokesperson offered CNET the following declaration:

“All Boeing airplanes are certified and delivered to the highest levels of safety consistent with industry standards. Airplanes are delivered with a baseline configuration, which includes a standard set of flight deck displays and alerts, crew procedures and training materials that meet industry safety norms and most customer requirements. Customers may choose additional options, such as alerts and indications, to customize their airplanes to support their individual operations or requirements.”

But on April 29, 2019, The Wall Street Journal stated that even for airline companies that had actually bought it, the caution light wasn’t running on some Max airplanes that had actually been provided (a reality the Indonesian mishap report validated). Then on June 7, 2019, Reps. Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon, and Rick Larsen, a Democrat from Washington, stated they’d gotten info recommending that despite the fact that the aircraft maker understood the security alert wasn’t working, it chose to wait till 2020 to carry out a repair. 

Boeing reacted to DeFazio and Larsen in a declaration sent out to CNET the very same day.

“The absence of the AOA Disagree alert did not adversely impact airplane safety or operation,” the declaration checked out. “Based on the safety review, the update was scheduled for the MAX 10 rollout in 2020. We fell short in the implementation of the AoA Disagree alert and are taking steps to address these issues so they do not occur again.”

Boeing 737-100

The initial variation of the 737 initially flew in 1967.


Boeing

What sort of MCAS training did 737 Max pilots get?

Not much, which was an element mentioned in both crash reports. As the Indonesian report stated, “The absence of guidance on MCAS or more detailed use of trim in the flight manuals and in flight crew training, made it more difficult for flight crews to properly respond.”

Though MCAS was brand-new to the Max, existing 737 pilots didn’t need to train on a simulator prior to they might begin flying the Max. Instead, they discovered the distinctions it brought through an hour’s worth of iPad-based training. MCAS got little reference. The factor? It was due to the fact that Boeing, backed by the FAA, wished to lessen the expense and time of licensing pilots who had actually currently been trained on other 737 variations. To do so, Boeing and the FAA dealt with the Max as simply another 737 variation, instead of a totally brand-new aircraft (which it practically is). 

Pilot grievances about the absence of training emerged rapidly after the Lion Air crash. On Nov. 12, 2018, The Seattle Times reported that Max pilots from Southwest Airlines were “kept in the dark” about MCAS. The Dallas Morning News discovered comparable grievances from American Airlines pilots 4 months later on.

Etihad 777 flight

The previous design, the 737-900ER, does not have the MCAS flight control system.


Boeing/Ed Turner

Are there any other problems with the airplane besides MCAS?

There are a couple of.

  • In December, 2019, the FAA stated it was taking a look at a possible issue with 2 packages of electrical wiring that power control surface areas on the airplane’s horizontal stabilizer. Because the packages are close together, there’s a remote possibility that they might short-circuit and (if not seen by the flight team) send out the aircraft into a dive. Boeing, nevertheless, is arguing a repair isn’t required, because earlier 737s have the very same electrical wiring style, and has actually proposed leaving the packages as they are.
  • The very same month, the FAA stated it was examining software application that confirm whether crucial systems on the airplane are operating properly.
  • Then in February, Boeing informed the FAA of a breakdown with a sign light for the stabilizer trim system, which raises and reduces the Max’s nose. The sign, which alerts pilots of a breakdown, was switching on when it wasn’t expected to. 
  • Boeing likewise is examining whether it requires to much better insulate the engine cowlings from lightning strikes in flight. 
  • Separately, CFM International stated there might be a possible weak point with a rotor on the Max’s engines.
  • In April, the FAA advised Boeing to make 2 extra computer system repairs to the aircraft beyond MCAS. One, a possible fault in a flight control computer system, might cause a loss of control from the horizontal stabilizer, while the 2nd might lead the auto-pilot function to possibly disengage throughout last method.
  • Aviation security regulators in Europe and Canada have actually requested for extra modifications to the Max’s avionics beyond MCAS.
  • in June, the FAA stated Boeing needed to repair engine coverings. The problem might cause a loss of power throughout flights.

Have any other reports been provided?

On Oct. 11, 2019, a global flight security panel provided a Joint Authorities Technical Review that faulted both the FAA and Boeing on numerous fronts. For the FAA, it stated the company requires to update its airplane accreditation procedure to represent progressively intricate automated systems.

For Boeing’s part, the report mentioned the business’s “inadequate communications” to the FAA about MCAS, pilot training and lack of technical personnel. The evaluation was performed by agents from NASA, the FAA and civil air travel authorities from Australia, Canada, China, Europe, Singapore, Japan, Brazil, Indonesia and the United Arab Emirates.


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How has Boeing responded?

Boeing was fully involved with both investigations early on. On Nov. 6, 2018, just eight days after the first crash, the company issued a safety warning advising 737 Max operators to deactivate MCAS if a flight crew encountered conditions like the Lion Air pilots experienced. It also expressed sympathy for victims’ families and pledged $100 million in support, and it quickly backed the US grounding order. 

“There is no greater priority for our company and our industry,” Boeing said in a March 13, 2019 statement. “We are doing everything we can to understand the cause of the accidents in partnership with the investigators, deploy safety enhancements and help ensure this does not happen again.”

As is common after a crash, Boeing didn’t comment on preliminary findings of either investigation, but the day after the Ethiopian crash the company said it would issue a software update that would include changes to MCAS, pilot displays, operation manuals and crew training.

Following the Lion Air accident report, then CEO Dennis Muilenburg said the company was “addressing” its safety recommendations. “We commend Indonesia’s KNKT for its extensive efforts to determine the facts of this accident, the contributing factors to its cause and recommendations aimed toward our common goal that this never happens again,” he said.

The grounding order also caused Boeing to halt production of the Max for four months in January, 2020. 

Did Boeing know about Max problems before the crashes?

There is evidence that it did. On Oct. 17, 2019, Boeing revealed it revealed text messages between two of the company’s top pilots sent in 2016, which indicated the company knew about problems with the MCAS system early on. In one of the messages, a former chief technical pilot for the Boeing 737 described the MCAS’ habit of engaging itself as “egregious.” 

Later that month, as he appeared before two congressional committees, Muilenburg admitted Boeing knew of the test pilot concerns in early 2019. “I was involved in the document collection process, but I relied on my team to get the documents to the appropriate authorities,” he said. “I didn’t get the details of the conversation until recently.”

Then on Jan. 10, 2020 Boeing released a series of explosive emails and instant messages to Congress in which Boeing employees discussed the 737 Max. Though some expressed regret for the company’s actions in getting the aircraft certified — “I still haven’t been forgiven by God for the covering up I did last year,” one employee wrote in 2018 — others openly discussed the 737 Max’s flaws and joked about the FAA’s approval process. “This airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys,” another employee wrote. (The New York Times has compiled the documents online.)

Did Boeing change its leadership?

Yes, but it didn’t happen quickly. Though Muilenburg apologized to the victims’ families in an interview with CBS News in May, 2019, he came under sharp criticism for his response to the crashes. On Oct. 11, 2019, Boeing announced it had taken away his role as chair so that as CEO, Muilenburg could “focus full time on running the company as it works to return the 737 Max safely to service.” 

Muilenburg spent the next two months resisting calls for his resignation from his other position, but on Dec. 23, 2019 the company announced that he had stepped down. “The Board of Directors decided a change in leadership was necessary to restore confidence in the company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders,” Boeing said in a statement. Chairman David Calhoun officially replaced Muilenburg on Jan. 13, 2020. 

Calhoun had defended Muilenburg before taking the top role, but in a March 5, 2020 interview with the New York Times he said his predecessor had needlessly rushed production of the Max before the company was ready. “I’ll never be able to judge what motivated Dennis, whether it was a stock price that was going to continue to go up and up, or whether it was just beating the other guy to the next rate increase.”

Separately, on Oct. 22, 2019, the company said it replaced Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Kevin McAllister, the official overseeing the 737 Max investigation, with Stan Deal, former president and CEO of Boeing Global Services.

What has the FAA’s role been?

Complicated. The agency quickly came under fire on multiple fronts over the crashes. Congress, the FBI, the Justice Department’s criminal division and Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao all called for investigations of the FAA’s certification process. Under an FAA program, Boeing was allowed to participate in the process, meaning that it inspected its own plane.

But on Jan. 16, 2020, an independent panel set up by the Department of Transportation (the FAA is a division of the DOT) dismissed that criticism. In its report, the committee found no significant problems with how the Max was cleared to fly. Though the committee said the FAA could improve the certification process, it saw no need for substantial changes.

Outside of the certification process, the FAA has slapped Boeing with two fines for installing substandard or unapproved equipment in some Max planes. With the first fine, which the FAA proposed in January 2020 for $5.4 million, the agency said Boeing used improper equipment to guide the slats on 178 Max planes. Positioned at the leading edge of each wing, slats are deployed at take-off and landing to provide more lift. The FAA also accused Boeing of installing a guidance system on 173 Max planes that used sensors that hadn’t been properly tested. The proposed penalty is $19.68 million.

And that’s not all. According to The Wall Street Journal, both the FAA and the Justice Department are investigating whether Boeing workers mistakenly left debris in fuel tanks or other interior spaces of completed aircraft.

Has Congress gotten involved?

Yes. In March 2020, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure released a report on the design, development and certification of the 737 Max and the FAA’s oversight of Boeing. It said “acts, omissions, and errors occurred across multiple stages and areas of the development and certification of the 737 MAX.” The report went on to identify five specific issues.

  • Production pressures: There was tremendous financial pressure on Boeing and the 737 Max program to compete with the A320neo, leading the company to rush the plane into service. 
  • Faulty assumptions: Boeing made fundamentally faulty assumptions about critical technologies on the 737 Max, most notably with MCAS.
  • Culture of concealment: In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers and 737 Max pilots.
  • Conflicted representation: The FAA’s current oversight structure over Boeing creates inherent conflicts of interest that have jeopardized the safety of the flying public. 
  • Boeing’s influence over the FAA’s oversight: Multiple career FAA officials documented examples of FAA management overruling the determination of the agency’s own technical experts at the behest of Boeing.

On Sept. 16, the House Transportation Committee issued a report that blamed the crashes on a “horrific culmination” of failures at Boeing and the FAA. “In several critical instances, Boeing withheld crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and 737 MAX pilots,” the report said. And as for the FAA, “the fact that a compliant airplane suffered from two deadly crashes in less than five months is clear evidence that the current regulatory system is fundamentally flawed and needs to be repaired.”

What happened during the grounding period?

First off, Max airlines had to look for parking spaces for the roughly 300 Max aircraft Boeing had delivered by the time the worldwide order went into effect. That’s a tremendously complicated effort by itself.

But while airlines can’t fly the plane (except to ferry empty aircraft from one airport to another) Boeing was able to conduct test flights for evaluating its proposed fixes

On May 16, 2019, the company said its updates were largely complete after more than 135 test flights. Five months later, on Oct. 22, the company said it had made “significant progress” toward that goal by adding flight control computer redundancy to MCAS and three additional layers of protection. It also had conducted simulator tests for 445 participants from more than 140 customers and regulators. Boeing provided a further progress report Nov. 11. 

Boeing and the FAA finally began the recertification flights on June 29. The flights attempted to trigger the steps that led to the two crashes and confirm that MCAS isn’t activating erroneously. The FAA also reviewed pilot training materials and FAA Administrator Steve Dickson piloted the plane on a Sept. 30 test flight to evaluate Boeing’s changes. Speaking to reporters after the flight he said he “liked what I saw.”

What are the FAA’s proposed fixes?

They include:

  • Avoid relying on a single angle-of-attack sensor that’s giving faulty readings, MCAS must compare data from more than one sensor.
  • All aircraft must have a warning light that shows when two sensors are disagreeing.
  • MCAS will activate only once rather than activating repeatedly, another factor that contributed to both crashes.
  • If MCAS is erroneously activated, flight crews will always be able to counter the movement by pulling back on the control column. 
  • Pilots will need more rigorous training on MCAS including time in a Max simulator (see next question). 
  • Outside of MCAS, the FAA also identified other modifications Boeing must make, including separating two bundles of wiring that power control surfaces on the aircraft’s horizontal stabilizer to ensure redundancy if one of the bundles fails. 

How will pilot training change?

The FAA must still approve pilot training revision for each US airline operating the Max. Simulator time focusing on MCAS will be required, a change from a position the FAA took last year. It took lobbying from pilots and regulatory officials from other countries, like Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau, to change that decision.

They won an influential supporter on June 19, 2019, when “Miracle on the Hudson” Capt. Chesley B. “Sully” Sullenberger argued before a congressional committee that simulator training should be required before pilots take the Max back into the air. He also said the original design of MCAS was “fatally flawed and should never have been approved.”

On Jan. 7, 2020, Boeing agreed when it issued a recommendation that pilots receive simulator training on MCAS before the Max returns to service, an action that aviation safety agencies will support. Simulator sessions will require extra time and expense for airlines struggling to get their Max fleets back in the air.

What happens next?

Before Max planes can carry passengers again, Boeing must work with the airlines to make the required fixes and retrain pilots. That will take time. 

Three US airlines currently have the Max in their fleets: Southwest, American and United. American says it could start Max flights as early as Dec. 29. United predicts a return by the first quarter of next year while Southwest says it won’t start flying the Max until at least the second quarter.

But that’s just in the US. Aviation regulatory agencies around the world also need to approve the fix before they’ll let the Max fly to the countries they oversee. Traditionally, they’ve followed the FAA’s lead on such matters, but Transport Canada, Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency the European Aviation Safety Agency and other countries have conducted independent tests of the plane while working with the FAA. They’re working on different timelines — though the EU should finish by the end of the year — and they may ask for more changes.

Boeing and airlines also will need to ferry the hundreds of Max aircraft stored around the world to airports where passenger flights can begin.

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A Boeing 737 Max 7 lands at Boeing Field in Seattle after a test flight to evaluate the MCAS software fix.


Paul Christian Gordon/Boeing

Are airplanes now too complicated?

On March 12, 2019, Trump tweeted that airplanes are “becoming far too complex to fly.” The reality isn’t quite that simple. Commercial airliners have used automated systems for decades (that’s what an automatic pilot is). The Lockheed L-1011, introduced in 1972, could land itself. Most airliners flying today also are “fly by wire,” meaning that a pilot’s commands are carried as electronic signals (rather than over hydraulic lines) to an aircraft’s control services. Flight computers also continually stabilize an aircraft during flight without input from the flight crew. Boeing and Airbus have different philosophies for this interaction, but explaining those could take a book.

So the basic concept of MCAS is nothing new. But crews need to be properly trained to use automated systems, recognize when they may be at fault and override them if necessary. As the accident reports have indicated, a lack of training about MCAS contributed to the Max 8 crashes. Airline pilots are thoroughly trained to fly an aircraft under extraordinary circumstances, but they need accurate information about factors like airspeed and altitude to be able to make quick decisions in an emergency.

Has a commercial aircraft been grounded before?

Yes. In the most recent example, the FAA grounded the Boeing 787 for three months in 2013 after a series of nonfatal battery fires. Before that, the FAA grounded the Douglas DC-10 for a month in 1979 after a crash near Chicago O’Hare Airport killed 271 people on board, plus two on the ground. (Outside of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, that remains the deadliest airplane crash on US soil.) The Chicago crash was ultimately attributed to improper maintenance. The crash of a DC-10 in 1974 in France, killing 346 people, was caused by a design flaw on a cargo hold door latch.

Outside the US, both Qantas and Singapore Airlines voluntarily grounded their Airbus A380s for a couple of days after a Qantas flight from Singapore to Sydney in 2010 had an uncontained engine failure. 

How important is the Max series to Boeing?

Hugely important. The battle for the 150- to 200-seat aircraft market between Boeing and Airbus is fierce, and Airbus is currently winning the battle for orders. As of Oct. 31, 2020, Boeing had 4,102 737 Max orders on the books from from both existing operators and airlines like Alaska and Ryanair. 

Following the second crash, though, new orders slowed dramatically and some carriers canceled or delayed their orders, a trend only hastened by the travel slowdown from the coronavirus pandemic. But Boeing did get occasional occasional bits of good news. On June 18, 2019, at the Paris Air Show, International Airlines Group said it would consider buying 200 737 Max 8s and 10s. And at the Dubai Air Show in October 2019, Boeing reported 737 Max orders from Air Astana and SunExpress. 

In any case, though, Boeing will will have its work cut out for it in assuring both airlines and the flying public that the Max is safe.

Correction, Jan. 10, 1:54 p.m. PT: This story initially misstated the status of Malaysia’s Malindo Air at the time of the first crash.



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