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Bad omen dogs Boeing as the 737 Max limps back into the air

At 10.32am on Tuesday, one of American Airlines’ most senior captains will push forward the throttle of a Boeing short-haul 737 jet and make history. He will be the first pilot from a big global airline to fly a commercial passenger flight of the 737 Max 8 since it was grounded after two crashes killed 346 people.


But who will pay to board flight AA718 from Miami to LaGuardia, New York — especially since the news emerged that last Tuesday an Air Canada Max undergoing testing before its planned reintroduction was forced to make an unscheduled landing after suffering engine trouble


Since US regulators recertified the jet last month after Boeing made safety changes, airlines have wondered if passengers will have the confidence to fly.


“There’s a dark cloud hanging over the Max,” said Henry Harteveldt, president of Atmosphere Research in San Francisco.


In October 2018, 189 people died when a Lion Air 737 Max nosedived into the Java Sea after taking off from Jakarta. Five months later, 157 were killed when an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max crashed minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa.


If American Airlines’ passengers are reluctant to book — websites will tell passengers they are choosing to fly on a Max before they click “buy” — or get cold feet at the gate, carriers around the world could cancel 4,500 orders. That would cost Boeing tens of billions of pounds to add to the £14bn it lost while the jets were grounded and a possible £20bn in fines and legal settlements, plus £100m compensation it is likely to have to pay to the families of crash victims.


Ryanair, Boeing’s most important airline customer outside America, has ordered 210 Max jets, at a list price of £16bn. IAG, parent company of British Airways, has signed a letter of intent to buy 200 for £15bn. Ryanair hopes to be flying the Max by Easter.


Boeing and American Airlines insist that, with recent modifications, the aircraft is “as safe as every plane we fly”. A second sensor has been added to the nose cone to make sure accurate information is transmitted to the autopilot. The plane’s autopilot software has been rewritten to give pilots greater control.


Faulty information sent to the autopilot from the single sensor on the original models of the plane was one of the causes of the crashes. The sensor misread how the aircraft was flying. It told the autopilot the jet was flying too steeply upwards, losing lift under its wings, and might stall. The information triggered the autopilot to force down the nose.


The pilots of both aircraft knew their jet was flying normally and tried to climb gradually to cruising altitude, but the autopilot repeatedly overruled them and forced down the nose. Eventually they lost control.


As well as the technical changes, pilots have been retrained.


“We’ve implemented rigorous processes to ensure that every plane in the air is safe,” said David Seymour, chief operating officer at American Airlines.


Not everyone is convinced. After testing the revamped jet in a simulator, Chesley Sullenberger, who safely landed his stricken US Airways Airbus A320 on the Hudson River in New York in 2009, said Boeing needed to do more to ensure pilots could cope in emergencies.


Harteveldt argues that “after a few months, passengers may shrug their shoulders and decide it’s safe”. He points to the precedent set by the long-haul Boeing 787 Dreamliner. It, too, was grounded a few months after its maiden passenger flight in 2013 because the lithium-ion batteries on several aircraft caught fire. Boeing’s decision to encase the batteries in fireproof chambers solved the problem and the aircraft is now the workhorse of many airlines.


However, at the back of every pilot and airline executive’s mind, there remains a nagging worry. If there is even the smallest problem on a passenger flight that requires emergency action, the plane will, as one captain puts it, “be finished”. The Air Canada incident is a bad omen.


This article originally appeared on The Times

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