Boeing’s 737 Max aircraft has been given the green light to return to the skies in the UK and the EU, after a 22-month grounding following two fatal crashes.
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said on Wednesday it had lifted a ban on the 737 Max in UK airspace and that UK airlines would be allowed to fly it, shortly after the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) also issued its final approval. However, the CAA stressed that pilot training requirements meant it would be some time before the plane takes to the air in the UK.
Marking a crucial step in its return to service, a modified version of the US company’s previously bestselling aeroplane has been given permission to fly again, although not until a package of checks and training is completed.
The regulatory approvals came on the same day that Boeing revealed a net loss of $11.9bn (£8.7bn) for 2020, the largest in its history, as the coronavirus pandemic and the 737 Max caused revenues to slump by 24%.
Richard Moriarty, the CAA’s chief executive, said: “Our thoughts remain with those affected by the tragic accidents of the Boeing 737 Max. 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.”
The CAA regained the responsibility for supervising British airspace after the UK’s exit from the EU on 31 December. The CAA said the 737 Max will be “subject to close oversight” once it returns.
Two airlines from the British Isles have 737 Max planes in their fleets: the Irish carrier Ryanair and the Anglo-German travel company Tui. British Airways has said it plans to buy 200 of the planes, but is yet to put in a firm order.
Tui has said it will let customers change flights free of charge if they feel uncomfortable flying in the plane, but Ryanair has said it will be unable to offer this because its plans can change at short notice.
The regulators said each 737 Max aircraft would be required to undergo software upgrades, reworking of its electrical system, maintenance checks, operations manual updates and crew training before re-entering service.
As a result, in the EU each aircraft will have to undergo an updated airworthiness directive, which will be scheduled by the aircraft operators and overseen by the national aviation authority of each of the 27 EU member states, meaning it may also be some time before the 737 Max takes off again in Europe.
EASA and the CAA have followed in the footsteps of regulators in the US and Brazil in granting approval to the modified 737 Max. The decision to give approval was “a significant milestone on a long road”, said EASA’s executive director, Patrick Ky, adding that the regulator had not come under any pressure from Boeing or others to do so.
“This assessment was carried out in full independence of Boeing or the Federal Aviation Administration and without any economic or political pressure – we asked difficult questions until we got answers and pushed for solutions which satisfied our exacting safety requirements,” Ky said.
The 737 Max was grounded globally in March 2019 after two plane crashes in the space of six months killed a total of 346 people in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The crashes were partly caused by a faulty sensor which repeatedly triggered a system, called MCAS, that pushed down the planes’ noses.
Naoise Connolly Ryan, whose husband, Mick, died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash, said families of the victims were not satisfied that they had been told fully what happened or why. Some of the families have objected to reapproval of the 737 Max.
“Ultimately we are more determined than ever to find out exactly what Boeing knew about this dangerous aircraft, and hold them accountable for the deaths of our loved ones,” she said.
A Boeing spokesperson said the lessons learned from the crashes had “reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity”, and said the company would continue to work closely with regulators.