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December 4, 2023
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[That was quick – The FAA just grounded the MAX as well, moments after we posted this]

The FAA and the US carriers flying the MAX are under pressure from all sides.  The clamor for the MAX to be grounded is global.  Is this pressure warranted?

The FAA has said they don’t have data that supports the grounding of the aircraft.  The FAA’s most current statement states “The FAA continues to review extensively all available data and aggregate safety performance from operators and pilots of the Boeing 737 MAX. Thus far, our review shows no systemic performance issues and provides no basis to order grounding the aircraft. Nor have other civil aviation authorities provided data to us that would warrant action. In the course of our urgent review of data on the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash, if any issues affecting the continued airworthiness of the aircraft are identified, the FAA will take immediate and appropriate action.”

The NTSB Aviation Accident Database & Synopses reports that there were 10 incidents between 2017 and 2018 on 737s. None were reported for the MAX model.  On November 7, 2018, the FAA issued an AD about the MAX. The FAA stated “We consider this AD interim action. If final action is later identified, we might consider further rulemaking then.” On December 11, 2018, the FAA followed up with an emergency AD. In this AD the FAA stated, “This AD requires revising certificate limitations and operating procedures of the airplane flight manual (AFM) to provide the flight crew with runaway horizontal stabilizer trim procedures to follow under certain conditions.”

The Aviation Safety Reporting System is the FAA’s voluntary confidential reporting system that allows pilots and other crew members to confidentially report near misses and close calls in the interest of improving air safety.  A search of this system for anything on the MAX returns six events. These six events are in the attached PDF.  In another search of the above database for the terms MCAS, we found three reports attached.  These three are focused on nose down and MCAS.

There are three airlines in the US that fly the MAX.  Here is some evidence that might provide an explanation for why these airlines are not being browbeaten into following what seems like a kneejerk reaction. The 2018 data is through November, which is the latest available information.

The first three charts list the airlines flying the MAX and shows how many flights their MAX fleets are performing relative to the rest of their single-aisle fleets. Look for the tiny bright red spot on top of the 2018 column. The amount of MAX flying is tiny for all three through November 2018.

But even as the operational activities for the MAX are tiny, these aircraft are star performers for their operators.  These three airlines are making very good use of the aircraft.  Look at load factors for these three airlines, comparing single-aisle fleets.

Canada, this morning cited additional data in its decision to ground the MAX.  The three US airlines are still operating the MAX, as the FAA has not grounded the aircraft.  Fortunately, given that the MAX is a new aircraft with few aircraft in service, the exposure to the MAX is quite small, and if a grounding was to occur, would not have a major impact on fleets.  Two years from now, given the large order book for the MAX, that would be a very different story.

The FAA has taken the attitude that it will wait for data from ET302 rather than ground the aircraft.  It may still take a few days until we know more, as the “black boxes” will be sent from Ethiopia to Europe for downloading and evaluation.  Then, with data and evidence in hand, the FAA will react.


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Co-Founder AirInsight. My previous life includes stints at Shell South Africa, CIC Research, and PA Consulting. Got bitten by the aviation bug and ended up an Avgeek. Then the data bug got me, making me a curious Avgeek seeking data-driven logic. Also, I appreciate conversations with smart people from whom I learn so much. Summary: I am very fortunate to work with and converse with great people.

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