Flying the 737 Max: AA begins bid to restore faith in the infamous jet

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Passengers board an American Airlines 737 Max jet for a flight to Tulsa, Okla.
Passengers board an American Airlines 737 Max jet for a flight to Tulsa, Okla. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

TULSA, Okla. -- The Boeing 737 Max has been approved to resume commercial operations by the FAA and by regulators in Brazil, and it has also received tentative approval in Europe. But airlines understand that they still face the daunting challenge of restoring consumer confidence in the plane.

"Yeah, we get it. There's going to be some folks that would rather not fly the Max," American Airlines fleet tech pilot Ted Rogachuk candidly acknowledged here on Wednesday.

A Travel Weekly reporter was among the 90 journalists and American employees to fly on an American 737 Max roundtrip between Dallas-Fort Worth and Tulsa, the first time a Max has carried individuals since its grounding in 2019 who aren't either airline staff or involved with recertification and testing.

The flight, and an informational session for the media at American's maintenance base in Tulsa, was the biggest push yet by an airline to assuage consumer reticence about the Max.

Both legs of the itinerary went smoothly, and the approximately 50-mintue flights were uneventful save for the smattering of applause that greeted the landing of the first leg in Tulsa. 

Shortly before takeoff from DFW, the first officer, Capt. Pete Gamble, gave brief remarks and said that the links of the air safety chain had been broken by the Max nearly two years ago. The flight, he said, represented a significant step in mending that breakage.

Passengers, masked and distanced, on the 737 Max flight. It was the first flight of a Max jet with passengers who were not either airline staff or people involved with the recertification.
Passengers, masked and distanced, on the 737 Max flight. It was the first flight of a Max jet with passengers who were not either airline staff or people involved with the recertification. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

The true test of consumer confidence is coming up later this month; American begins using the model on revenue service Dec. 29 between Miami and New York LaGuardia. United, Alaska and Southwest will follow later in 2021. Brazil's Gol could be the first of the more than 50 global carriers that were flying the Max prior to the grounding to resume service, with flights being scaled up over the next few weeks.

The October 2018 crash of Lion Air flight 610 and the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 the following March, which killed a combined 346 people, were both the result of a faulty sensor that transmitted erroneous information to the planes' automated flight control systems, causing them to nosedive.

Boeing has addressed that issue by altering the flight control system so that it now compares input from two sensors rather than responding to input from one sensor only. The aircraft only corrects its angle of attack if both sensors provide the same input. In addition, the flight control system, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), will only activate once in response to sensor input, rather than repeatedly, as it did in the two crashes.

Along with making that software upgrade, which takes approximately six hours, airlines must develop new 737 Max pilot training requirements, including simulator training, before putting the planes in service. Other system upgrades are also required.

At the Tulsa maintenance facility, technicians explained the steps they've taken to maintain the carrier's 24 Max jets during the 20-month grounding.

Every 10 days, the airline did system checks as if the planes were operational. That included running the engines, checking the flight controllers and doing tire checks.

Ahead of relaunch, the aircraft are also going through a reactivation program, which includes a check of every system on the planes. The reactivation tests last four days, 24 hours per day, explained Roger Steele, supervisor of American's retrofit program.

After that, each plane undergoes a two-hour test flight in which technical pilots put the aircraft through the rigors to make sure all the systems, including the new MCAS software system, is functioning properly.

"I will fly this aircraft constantly; I believe in this product, and I'm proud of the work this team has done with Boeing and the FAA," Erik Olund, head of the Tulsa TechOps center, told the assembled media.

Shortly before takeoff from Dallas-Fort Worth, the first officer, Capt. Pete Gamble, gave brief remarks.
Shortly before takeoff from Dallas-Fort Worth, the first officer, Capt. Pete Gamble, gave brief remarks. Photo Credit: Robert Silk

American Airlines pilots were similarly confident.

"It's not going too far to say this probably one of the most scrutinized aircraft in the history of aviation," Gamble said.

Under American's new Max training program, pilots will get two hours of computer-based training on the MCAS system, which they complete on their own laptops. They will also complete a one-hour briefing, followed by two hours of simulator training.

But even as American pilots and technicians extolled the fixes of the 737 Max, families of the Max victims offered evidence that restoring consumer confidence in the infamous aircraft type will be difficult.

In a statement, Chicago's Clifford Law Office, which represents crash victim families in a lawsuit against Boeing, decried the American Airlines press event as a "media stunt."

Clifford clients said in the statement that the Max shouldn't have been authorized to return to the skies.

"The return-to-flight effort has been run by exactly the same players that designed and certified the original aircraft, which crashed twice," Javier de Luis, who holds a doctorate in aerospace engineering from MIT and who lost his sister Graziella de Luis y Ponce in the Ethiopian crash, said in the statement. "The Max still does not have sufficient redundancy of prone-to-fail sensors, and the FAA has refused our requests to see the technical data and assessments on how they claim to have fixed the aircraft."

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