EASA declares Boeing 737 MAX safe to return to service in Europe

COLOGNE, January 27, 2021 – The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) gave its seal of approval for the return to service of a modified version of the Boeing 737 MAX, mandating a package of software upgrades, electrical wiring rework, maintenance checks, operations manual updates and crew training which will allow the plane to fly safely in European skies after almost two years on the ground.
“We have reached a significant milestone on a long road,” said EASA Executive Director Patrick Ky. “Following extensive analysis by EASA, we have determined that the 737 MAX can safely return to service. 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.  We carried out our own flight tests and simulator sessions and did not rely on others to do this for us.
“Let me be quite clear that this journey does not end here,” he added. “We have every confidence that the aircraft is safe, which is the precondition for giving our approval. But we will continue to monitor 737 MAX operations closely as the aircraft resumes service. In parallel, and at our insistence, Boeing has also committed to work to enhance the aircraft still further in the medium term, in order to reach an even higher level of safety.”
The Boeing 737 MAX was grounded worldwide in March 2019 following the second of two accidents within just six months, which together claimed 346 lives. The root cause of these tragic accidents was traced to software known as the MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), intended to make the plane easier to handle. However, the MCAS, guided by only one Angle of Attack (AoA) sensor, kicked in repeatedly if that sensor malfunctioned, pushing the nose of the aircraft downward multiple times. In both accidents, pilots finally lost control of their plane, resulting in a crash with total loss of aircraft.
EASA’s conditions for Return to Service now met
In the days after the grounding, EASA set four conditions for the return to service of the aircraft:
1- The two accidents (JT610 and ET302) are deemed sufficiently understood
2- Design changes proposed by Boeing to address the issues highlighted by the accidents are EASA approved and their embodiment is mandated
3- An  independent extended design review has been completed by EASA
4- Boeing 737 MAX flight crews have been adequately trained
“These four conditions have now all been met, allowing us to go ahead with the return to service,” Ky said.


 Low Risk of Viral transmission in flight

Inflight COVID-19 transmission is rare, not only due to new measures but thanks to the airflow within aircraft.

Since the start of 2020 up to October, there have been 44 confirmed or possible cases of COVID-19 associated with a flight. In that period, some 1.2 billion passengers have traveled. That equates to one case for every 27 million travelers. Dr. David Powell, IATA’s Medical Advisor, calls the figures “extremely reassuring.” “Furthermore, the vast majority of published cases occurred before the wearing of face coverings inflight became widespread,” he notes.

The pandemic plunge in air travel demand began in January of 2020, but was limited to only a few countries. As the virus continued its global spread, however, air transport activities came to a virtual standstill by the end of March.

With the wide-scale lockdown measures, border closures, and travel restrictions being set out around the world, by April the overall number of passengers had fallen 92 per cent from 2019 levels, an average of the 98 per cent drop-off seen in international traffic and 87 per cent fall in domestic air travel.

Subsequent to the April low point being reached, passenger traffic saw a moderate rebound during the summer travel period.

That upward trend was short-lived, however, stalling and then taking a turn for the worse in September when the second wave of infection in many regions prompted the reintroduction of restrictive measures.

Sectoral recovery became more vulnerable and volatile again during the last four months of 2020, indicating an overall double-dip recession for the year

Disparity between domestic and international recoveries

ICAO also reported that there has been a persistent disparity between domestic and international air travel impacts resulting from the more stringent international measures in force.

Aligned data

Studies by Airbus, Boeing, and Embraer explain the reasons behind the low transmission rate. Though aircraft types vary, detailed simulations confirmed that aircraft airflow systems effectively control the movement of particles in the cabin, limiting the spread of viruses.

High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters, the natural barrier of the seatback, the downward flow of air, and high rates of air exchange efficiently reduce the risk of transmission.

HEPA filters, for example, have a more than 99.9% bacteria/virus removal efficiency rate, ensuring that the air supply entering the cabin is not a pathway for microbes. Air is exchanged 20-30 times per hour on board most aircraft, which compares very favorably with the average office space (average 2-3 times per hour) or schools (average 10-15 times per hour).

Mask wearing adds an extra layer of protection and is now common on most airlines. The Takeoff Guidance issued by ICAO supports this approach. The guidance also adds numerous other layers of protection to keep transmission rates to a minimum.

Manufacturer Studies

The simulations carried out by the three major manufacturers further highlighted the importance of aircraft design in low infection rates. An Airbus simulation of the air in an A320 cabin calculated parameters such as air speed, direction, and temperature at 50 million points in the cabin, up to 1,000 times per second. The same tools were then used to model a non-aircraft environment, with several individuals social distancing. The result clearly demonstrated that potential exposure was lower on an aircraft than when staying six feet apart in an office or classroom.

Boeing researchers studied various scenarios, including a coughing passenger with and without a mask seated in various locations, and different on/off variations of overhead air vents.

Embraer research likewise showed that risk of onboard transmission is extremely low, and the actual data on in-fight transmissions that may have occurred supports these findings.

Safety first

The research done on inflight transmission of the coronavirus shows the cooperation and dedication to safety of all involved in air transport, providing undeniable evidence cabin air is safe.

Indeed, the priority on safety is no different during the COVID-19 outbreak. A recent IATA study found that 86% of recent travelers felt that the industry’s COVID-19 measures were keeping them safe and were well-implemented.

Alexandre de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO, accepts that there is no “single silver-bullet measure” that will make air travel 100% safe in the age of COVID-19. “But the combination of measures that are being put in place is reassuring travelers the world over that COVID-19 has not defeated their freedom to fly,” he says. “Nothing is completely risk-free. But with just 44 published cases of potential inflight COVID-19 transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, the risk of contracting the virus on board appears to be in the same category as being struck by lightning.”


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