Boeing’s 737 MAX has been cleared for take-off by the UK air safety regulator, the CAA, but is it really safe?
The aircraft was banned worldwide almost two years ago after it was involved in two fatal crashes, one in Indonesia in October 2018 and the other in Ethiopia in March 2019.
It was discovered that a malfunctioning sensor was to blame for both accidents. It forced the aircraft to go into a nosedive that the pilots were unable to control.
However, inadequate pilot training on the new MAX jet was also considered to be a factor in the two fatal accidents, which killed a total of 346 passengers and crew.
The aircraft was grounded from March 2019 to December last year while Boeing worked to fix the problems and devise additional pilot training.
It was finally certified to fly again last month by the US air safety regulator, the FAA. American Airlines and Brazilian carrier GOL were among the first to resume MAX flights.
The 737 MAX had been cleared by the authorities in Canada and by the European air safety regulator before today’s announcement by the Civil Aviation Authority that it had also approved changes to the aircraft.
Why does the CAA think the 737 MAX is safe?
The CAA says UK airlines can operate the 737 MAX, subject to ‘close oversight’.
It has also cleared the plane to fly in UK airspace, meaning foreign airlines can operate the MAX to and from UK airports.
In announcing its decision, the CAA said it was satisfied the plane was safe following design modifications to the aircraft itself, how it is flown and to pilot training.
Head of the CAA, Richard Moriarty, said: “This is not a decision we have taken lightly and we would not have allowed a return to service for UK operators, or lifted the ban on the aircraft operating in UK airspace, unless we were satisfied that the aircraft type is airworthy and can be operated safely.”
He said the international effort to return the Boeing 737 MAX to the skies “has been the most extensive project of this kind ever undertaken in civil aviation”.
It shows, he said, the importance of cooperation between states and regulators in maintaining safety.
The CAA examined detailed information from the European air safety agency, EASA, and the US regulator, the FAA, and Boeing. It also engaged with airlines and pilot representatives.
Am I likely to fly on the Boeing 737 MAX?
TUI is the only UK airline currently operating the Boeing 737 MAX, but it says it will take a while to return the aircraft to the skies even after the lockdown is lifted and travel resumes.
TUI currently only has five of the planes, but it has ordered dozens more.
Prior to the aircraft being grounded, most of TUI’s MAX jets were based at Manchester Airport, mainly operating longer flights to Europe and North Africa. It hasn’t said where they’ll be based when they come back into service.
What about other airlines?
The CAA has also lifted its ban on foreign airlines operating the 737 MAX in UK airspace.
Ryanair has 210 of the planes on order. The Irish budget airline is hoping to take delivery of 50 of them this year.
The airline’s boss Michael O’Leary has described the Boeing 737 MAX as ‘a fabulous aircraft’. It has more seats, more leg room, lower fuel consumption and fewer CO2 emissions than the older 737 and it’s 40% less noisy, he says.
Ryanair is also understood to have secured 75 of the aircraft at a knockdown price following the two accidents and the subsequent delay in delivery.
The airline says it will use the 737 MAX to replace older aircraft as soon as possible.
Norwegian and Spanish airline Air Europa, which is being sold to British Airways’ owner IAG, are the other two biggest customers for the 737 MAX in Europe.
Several North American and Asian airlines also intend to operate the plane, along with FlyDubai, but due to its limited range they wouldn’t operate 737 flights to or from the UK.
What if I don’t want to fly on the Boeing 737 MAX?
TUI says passengers who don’t want to fly on the plane will be able to change their flight free of charge.
However, it says it might not always be able to warn passengers that they’ll be flying on the Boeing 737 MAX as aircraft are often moved around at the last minute.
Ryanair won’t warn passengers they’re flying on the plane and it won’t let them switch flights for free. It says it will be impossible to give them advance notice since they book weeks in advance and the airline only decides which aircraft to allocate to which route the day before the flight.