737 MAX COMES BACK: What you need to know as the plane returns after a disastrous 2 years on the ground

The Boeing 737 Max, the latest generation of the storied plane-maker's 60-year-old workhorse, has been an unmitigated disaster. But after nearly two years on the ground, the 737 Max is coming back.

The FAA issued an airworthiness directive on Wednesday lifting a March 2019 grounding order on the Max. US airlines will have to install fixes to the planes' flight computers before their Max fleets can actually fly, and must submit pilot training programs to the FAA for approval.

The global fleet of just under 400 Max jets were grounded after the second of two fatal crashes, which killed 346 people. Now, as the 737 is cleared to fly again and airlines work to bring their Max jets from storage back into service, questions remain: Can Boeing sell the plane again? Will passengers will be willing to fly on it?

Those answers are for another time. But for now, familiarize yourself with how we got here with the timeline below.

The history of the 737 Max

The 737 Max is the fourth generation of the Boeing 737, and quickly became infamous for its two fatal crashes. Investigators linked them to a faulty system called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS — designed to compensate for the Max having larger engines than previous 737 generations.

  • The complete history of the Boeing 737 Max, the trouble plane that's been grounded since 2 crashes killed 346 people 5 months apart
  • Boeing 737 timeline: From the early days to the grounding of the 737 Max after 2 fatal crashes

Investigations, hearings, and more problems

Larger engines meant the plane's nose could tip upward, potentially leading to a stall. To neutralize the problem, MCAS could automatically point the nose down.

However, the system could be activated by a faulty reading from a single angle-of-attack sensor, without any redundancies or backups. In both fatal 737 Max crashes, the sensors are thought to have failed, sending erroneous data to the flight computer and, without a redundant check in place, triggering the automated system.

But that was just the beginning. 

  • A blistering House report slams Boeing and the FAA over 'serious flaws and missteps' that led to two deadly 737 Max crashes 
  • The DOJ is reportedly probing whether Boeing's chief pilot misled regulators over the 737 Max 
  • Boeing found debris from manufacturing in stored 737 Max jets, a problem that has plagued the company on a different plane 
  • A Boeing employee called Lion Air, the airline in the first 737 Max crash, 'idiots' for asking to have its pilots trained in flying the plane 
  • The 16 most outrageous things Boeing employees said about the company, 737 Max program, and each other in released internal emails 
  • 8 months before the first 737 Max crash, 2 Boeing employees talked about how they wouldn't let their families fly on the plane
  • Boeing 737 Max investigation after several plane crashes revealed additional concerns with wiring and engines 
  • Boeing's CEO Dennis Muilenburg has been fired as the company continues to battle fallout from its 737 Max crisis 

Struggles for airlines as their planes remain unable to fly

The groundings were initially expected to last for just a few weeks. But Boeing and the FAA found additional, unrelated safety hazards, eventually requiring Boeing to redesign the jet's entire flight computer rather than just the MCAS software.

Airlines around the world have eagerly awaited the jet's return, finding themselves forced to cut capacity and routes as they canceled flights each month the Max remained out of service. 

  • The 737 Max will miss another summer travel season as United, American, and Southwest announce a new round of cancellations
  • The CEO of Oman Aviation Group says his airline is sticking by Boeing and keeping its plane order despite the 737 Max scandal 
  • An American Airlines exec reveals why airlines are getting way ahead of Boeing by yanking the 737 Max off their schedules early 
  • Southwest is so confident that flyers will trust the Boeing 737 Max when it returns that it's not considering any discounts on flights 
  • Southwest had a mess of a year because of the 737 Max, and it's only going to get worse — but there are a few bright spots

Fallout and the fall of an iconic American corporation

Although the collapse of travel demand due to the coronavirus pandemic has made the airlines' needs a bit less urgent — airlines have grounded additional planes due to the diminished demand — the return of the Max will be a crucial part of how carriers scale back up when the pandemic recedes.

Boeing's hopes are pinned on a successful reintroduction of the Max — and on demand for the plane returning as passengers do. The plane-maker has only booked 42 orders of the plane since the grounding began, and its backlog of 4,102 undelivered orders is quickly dwindling. Since the start of the crisis, Boeing posted its worst loss in decades and lost the title of world's largest plane-maker to arch-rival Airbus.

  • Boeing is facing a two-front assault from the coronavirus pandemic and the 737 Max scandal. A new report shows just how bad things could get.
  • Boeing may be dropping the 'Max' from the name of its troubled jet, calling the latest version the 737-8 
  • Airlines are delaying new plane deliveries and seeking financing — and that's bad news for Boeing as the 737 Max inches toward its return
  • Boeing says it's about to start building the 737 Max plane again in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, even though it already has more planes than it can deliver 
  • Boeing said it burned through $4.3 billion in the first quarter and will cut 10% of its workforce
  • Boeing burned through $13.8 billion of loans in just over a month as coronavirus derails its 737 Max recovery 
  • Boeing posted its first full-year loss in more than 20 years, as the 737 Max crisis continues
  • Boeing had its worst year in 3 decades and lost the title of world's biggest plane-maker 
  • Boeing's new CEO faces an uphill battle to restore faith in the company and get the troubled 737 Max back in the air 

Returning the Max to service

The process of bringing the 737 Max back to the skies has been a long and arduous one, marred by unexpected challenges and delays as intense scrutiny uncovered new issues with the plane.

  • The Boeing 737 Max is likely just weeks away from being cleared to fly again. Here are the few steps remaining before the FAA lifts its 2019 grounding order 
  • The FAA could let the Boeing 737 Max resume flying next month — here are all the changes airlines must make before takeoff
  • The FAA's chief will fly the Boeing 737 Max himself, as his agency moves closer to approving the plane's return to passenger service 
  • The first Boeing 737 Max recertification flight just landed, marking a new milestone for the troubled jet

Buyouts and layoffs at Boeing and beyond

The implications of the crisis have extended far beyond Boeing. While the plane-maker cut jobs due to the grounding and coronavirus pandemic, additional cuts have rippled through the network of more than 600 manufacturers that supply components for the jet.

  • Boeing is scrambling to decide whether to take government bailout aid or go its own way to save cash, which could include mass layoffs
  • Boeing will offer another round of employee buyouts as its losses pile up amid the coronavirus pandemic 
  • Boeing restarted 737 Max production just hours after saying it would lay off thousands of workers 
  • Workers who build parts for the 737 Max are getting laid off and having their hours cut as the worldwide grounding rips through Boeing's contractor network 
  • A major Boeing supplier in Kansas is laying off 2,800 workers because of the 737 Max production halt 

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