US safety regulators have cleared Boeing's 737 MAX plane to fly again, lifting grounding orders placed 20 months ago after two deadly crashes.
This is encouraging news for Cayman Airways as it sent one of its Boeing 737 MAXs three months ago to California in anticipation of the aircraft returning to service. The plane flew from Georgetown to Victorville for modifications.
It marks a milestone for Boeing which was thrust into crisis by the tragedies and investigations that blamed company failures for the accidents. The decision was announced by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just months after a highly critical congressional report accused the watchdog itself of contributing to a "horrific culmination" of failures before the accidents.
Of the US carriers with 737 MAX jets, American Airlines plans the first commercial flight with the jet since it was grounded on Dec. 29, followed by United Airlines in the first quarter of 2021 and Southwest Airlines in the second quarter.
Cayman Airways had ordered four Boeing 737 MAXs. It’s a relatively small order. But for an airline with just seven aircraft in its fleet, the arrival of the MAXs promised to revolutionise operations. The airline took delivery of two leased 737 MAXs before they were grounded. The third MAX never left Boeing’s factory, and the fourth is yet to be manufactured.
The FAA said the airworthiness certificate would allow deliveries and US commercial flights to resume by the year's end - subject to pilot training being agreed as well as software and wiring changes.
Despite all the updates and modifications, many are not convinced on the aircraft’s safety. The decision to withdraw the fleet from service followed the Ethiopian Airlines disaster outside Addis Ababa in March last year which killed 157. Six months earlier, a Lion Air 737 MAX, carrying 189 passengers and crew, crashed in Indonesia.
The grounding was in response to fears that flight control software, known as MCAS and designed to emulate handling of other Boeing aircraft, was responsible for both crashes. Boeing’s financial woes deepened this year as air travel slowed due to the global pandemic.
The FAA said the clearance would not allow the plane to "return immediately" to the skies and design changes "have eliminated what caused these particular accidents".
The boss of the FAA said he was "100 percent confident" in the safety of the plane.
"We've done everything humanly possible to make sure these types of crashes do not happen again," Steve Dickson said.
As well as improvements to the plane, Boeing chief executive Dave Calhoun said the company had strengthened its safety practices and culture since the disasters.
"We will never forget the lives lost in the two tragic accidents that led to the decision to suspend operations," said Calhoun, who took over when his predecessor, Dennis Muilenburg, was fired last year. "These events and the lessons we have learned as a result have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity."
Wednesday's approval comes roughly a year after Boeing had first hoped, but too soon for many of the families of those killed on the flights. Some expressed "sheer disappointment" over the decision, while others said they did not have confidence in regulators or Boeing, which initially sought to pin the crashes on pilot error and is still fighting victims' families in court.
"Who's going to believe them? Not me," said Paul Njoroge, whose wife, three children and mother-in-law were killed in the Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crash.
Boeing shares, which have lost more than a third of their value in the year to date amid disruption to the travel industry from the coronavirus crisis, opened about 5 percent higher in New York after the widely-anticipated FAA statement.
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