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China takes its time to approve MAX’s return to Mainland skies

It has been a long hard road – approaching two years – for Boeing’s troubled B737 MAX but it is finally returning to the skies, if only gradually, after the toughest regulatory safety checks and modifications ever performed by aviation authorities around the world. Associate Editor and Chief Correspondent, Tom Ballantyne, reports.

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February 1st 2021

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The MAX is back. Read More » Almost. After the much-maligned latest B737 type was cleared by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to return to commercial service in November last year, several other national regulatory authorities have followed suit. Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency (ANAC) cleared the jet soon afterwards with Transport Canada (TC) issuing its own Airworthiness Directive reinstating the aircraft on January 18. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) announced it would approve the recertification of the MAX by the end of January, allowing it to return to the skies of the European Union almost two years after its grounding.

At press time, Chinese regulators confirmed “there was no set timetable” for clearing the MAX to fly again.

The MAX was grounded in March 2019 following two fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, respectively, that killed 346 passengers and crew. The Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), inherent to the aircraft, was found to be the main cause of both crashes. The first commercial flight carrying paying passengers since the ungrounding was operated by American Airlines, from Miami to New York, on December 29.

What is not clear is how long it will take regulatory authorities in Asia, including China, Japan and South Korea, to clear the jet to fly in their skies. China is of particular interest in its approach to approval as its carriers are the world’s biggest group of MAX customers, operating 97 of the global fleet of 371. The country’s largest airline, China Southern Airlines, has ordered 34 of the type.

The slow comeback of the jet has come with even more pain for Boeing. In January, the U.S. Department of Justice announced the aircraft manufacturer had agreed to pay more than $2.5 billion in fines to resolve a criminal charge related to a conspiracy to defraud regulators about the MAX crashes.

“The tragic crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 exposed fraudulent and deceptive conduct by employees of one of the world’s leading commercial airplane manufacturers,” acting assistant attorney general of the department of Justice’s criminal division, David P. Burns, said. “Boeing’s employees chose the path of profit over candor by concealing material information from the FAA concerning the operation of its 737 MAX airplane and engaging in an effort to cover up their deception.”

Boeing’s $2.5 billion fine breakdown is: a criminal monetary penalty of $243.6 million, compensation payments to Boeing’s 737 MAX airline customers of $1.77 billion and the establishment of a $500-million crash victim beneficiaries fund to compensate the heirs, relatives and legal beneficiaries of the 346 passengers killed in the crashes.

The thoroughness individual national regulatory bodies have demonstrated to ensure the MAX could return to the skies was exemplified in Transport Canada’s statement reinstating its airworthiness certificate. It said as part of Transport Canada’s independent review process, the department’s civil aviation certification and flight safety experts were instrumental in guiding the aircraft design changes. Additionally, the department has introduced unique Canadian measures to further enhance the safety of the aircraft.

“In addition to all reviews, and to provide additional assurances that all measures are in place, an Interim Order that clearly indicates Transport Canada’s expectations and requirements for additional training for crew members was issued for operators. It is complementary to the design and maintenance requirements of the Airworthiness Directive.”

In 2020, 27 MAXs were delivered; all of them in December after the type received approval to return to service in the U.S. American Airlines took 10, United Airlines eight and lessor, CIT Leasing, four. The type won 112 new orders, including 25 from Virgin Australia (VA) in November, 75 from Ryanair and seven from undisclosed customers. It is not known, however, if the VA order will be adjusted now it has a new owner.

Overall, 737 orders took a massive hit in 2020. At the end of December 2019 Boeing had a backlog of backlog of 4,389. A year later, it had fallen away by 1,068 aircraft to 3,321.

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