What's up, MAX?

Published 05-21-2019

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Although nobody has any definitive information, I can at least try to answer some of the most important current questions about Boeing's 737MAX. But feel free to disagree.

1. Will the MAX be safe when it's cleared to fly? My answer here is "Yes." Historically, when any catastrophic problem arises with an airplane, the manufacturer and regulators first dig into the facts until they're sure about the cause, then develop a fix to make sure than the problem never arises again. I'm confident that this sequence will work its way out for the MAX. Once cleared, it should be as safe as any comparable airplane -- and that means very safe, indeed.

2. When will MAX fly again? The industry is talking about official clearance to resume within 30 to 60 days, and the biggest MAX operator, Southwest, says it will take another 30 to 60 days to prepare for flight operations after clearance. Airlines will be lucky to get the MAX back into service before end of summer.

3. Will travelers avoid the MAX? Maybe, at least initially, but history says that the public generally returns to problem planes after they're properly fixed. The DC-6 went through an early grounding due to misplacement of a heating system, but once fixed, the DC-6 was quickly accepted by travelers and became the most popular four-engine piston transport of its generation. The Martin 202 suffered from wing failure in heavy turbulence, but redesigned as the 404 it flew successfully for decades. Once a faulty engine mount was determined to be the cause of Lockheed Electra crashes, the plane regained acceptance, and its market failure was due to preference for pure jets rather than avoidance of the plane. And once redesigned to avoid metal fatigue, the Comet went on to post a long record of successful service. Still, acceptance is an open question. Don't be surprised to see some "MAX Back" promotions later this year.

4. How badly will Boeing be hurt? It seems almost certain that Boeing will emerge with a substantial black eye. There's a lot of trade talk about the possibility that Boeing ignored early warnings of control problems with the MAX. In other industries, a problem as severe as the MAX safety issue could kill a product. But the airline demand for fuel-efficient, narrow-body jets appears virtually insatiable: Boeing's only real competitor, Airbus, couldn't possibly deliver enough planes to erase Boeing's backlog. So Boeing will keep building them and the airlines will continue to take delivery.

This is not to say, however, that Boeing will emerge unharmed. Future orders might well swing in favor of Airbus. That's likely to happen, in any case: The long-range A321 neo is a more capable plane then the MAX, even after it's fixed. The basic problem with the MAX is that its design was something of a kludge necessitated to compete with Airbus. Maybe the MAX problem will drive Boeing into what it should have done earlier: design and build a "clean sheet" midmarket plane clearly more capable than the best A321 could do.

Basically, Boeing needs a reboot. Industry gossip suggests that Boeing may have put too much emphasis on cost reduction at the expense of safety. And the current management had previously blundered in demanding ridiculously high tariffs on the Canadian-built C Series, only to drive that excellent small plane into the hands of Airbus, where it will be a much more robust competitor than had it remained with Bombardier.

Who are the winners and losers? Most stakeholders are losers: airlines are losing money because they can't use their new MAX models, travelers are facing tighter schedules and maybe higher fares because airlines don't have the capacity they need, and the FAA, which shares Boeing's black eye because it didn't catch the problem and deal with it quickly enough to prevent the crashes.

Winners are few. Airbus, of course, will likely see an uptick in its order books. But the big winner, as is so often the case, will be litigation: MAX will provide a full-employment program for tort lawyers for years.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed's new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

Basically, Boeing needs a reboot. Industry gossip suggests that Boeing may have put too much emphasis on cost reduction at the expense of safety. And the current management had previously blundered in demanding ridiculously high tariffs on the Canadian-built C Series, only to drive that excellent small plane into the hands of Airbus, where it will be a much more robust competitor than had it remained with Bombardier.

Who are the winners and losers? Most stakeholders are losers: airlines are losing money because they can't use their new MAX models, travelers are facing tighter schedules and maybe higher fares because airlines don't have the capacity they need, and the FAA, which shares Boeing's black eye because it didn't catch the problem and deal with it quickly enough to prevent the crashes.

Winners are few. Airbus, of course, will likely see an uptick in its order books. But the big winner, as is so often the case, will be litigation: MAX will provide a full-employment program for tort lawyers for years.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed's new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

Winners are few. Airbus, of course, will likely see an uptick in its order books. But the big winner, as is so often the case, will be litigation: MAX will provide a full-employment program for tort lawyers for years.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed's new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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