What you need to know about the Boeing 737 Max 8 and why it's still grounded

Here's what you need to know as Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg testifies before two U.S. congressional committees this week, one year after the first of two deadly crashes involving its 737 Max 8.

CEO Dennis Muilenburg appears before 2 U.S. congressional committees this week

Boeing 737 Max 8 manual mentions MCAS only once

4 years ago
Duration 4:31
Since the recent crashes of two Boeing 737 Max, pilots say they were kept in the dark about the existence of a key software suspected of being connected to the tragedies. CBC News has obtained a copy of the 737 MAX flight crew manual - and what’s not in it raises troubling questions about the manufacturer’s lack of disclosure.

The CEO of Boeing begins two days of testimony before U.S. Congress on Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of the first deadly crash of a Boeing 737 Max 8.

Dennis Muilenburg, who was stripped of his Boeing chair title earlier this month, is expected to acknowledge that the aircraft manufacturer made mistakes in the wake of two crashes in 2018 and 2019 involving the aircraft, which killed a total of 346 people. 

"We have learned and are still learning from these accidents," Muilenburg said in comments prepared for delivery Tuesday to a Senate committee. "We know we made mistakes and got some things wrong. We own that, and we are fixing them." 

Boeing is also facing a criminal probe by the U.S. Justice Department and is being sued by the families of some of the people who died in the crashes.

Here's what you need to know as Muilenburg speaks to the U.S. Senate commerce committee Tuesday and the U.S. House transportation and infrastructure committee Wednesday.

The crashes

On Oct. 29, 2018, Lion Air Flight 610 crashed into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff from the Indonesian capital of Jakarta. All 189 passengers and crew on board died.

Flight data recordings suggested the pilots struggled to maintain control of the jet as its automatic safety system repeatedly pushed down the plane's nose.

The crash of a Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 in October 2018 killed all 189 people on board. (Nicole Evatt/The Associated Press)

Less than five months later, on March 10, 2019, another Boeing 737 Max 8 crashed, this one operated by Ethiopian Airlines. It also went down shortly after takeoff, this time from Addis Ababa.

All 157 people on board died, including 18 Canadians. 

Rescuers work the scene of the Ethiopian Airlines flight crash near Bishoftu, Ethiopia in March. (Mulugeta Ayene/Associated Press)


The second crash raised serious concerns about the safety of the jet, and airlines and aviation administrations began grounding the Boeing 737 Max. 

Ethiopian Airlines grounded its entire 737 Max fleet on the day of that crash. China's aviation authority ordered all jets in China grounded the next day.

Also on March 11, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued a Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community

The U.K., the European Union, Australia and other countries moved quickly to ban the jet from their airspace. 

Canada, one of the final holdouts, acted on March 13, grounding all of its Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft and banning the jet from entering its airspace until further notice.

Two Air Canada Boeing 737 Max 8 aircrafts are seen on the tarmac in Toronto after the jet was grounded in March. (Chris Helgren/Reuters)

Investigations and reports

Early investigations into the two crashes focused on the jet's anti-stall system that kicked in and pushed down the noses of the planes. Boeing has acknowledged that both crashes involved the repeated activation of the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) after the safety system received faulty sensor input. 

Indonesian investigators issued their final report into the Lion Air crash last week. It found that Boeing, acting with inadequate oversight from U.S. regulators, failed to grasp the risks of the design of the 737 Max cockpit software. 

And it concluded that the pilots had not been trained in how to respond to the jet's automated flight-control system

CBC News found that the Boeing 737 Max 8 manual only mentions MCAS once:

A month earlier, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board concluded that Boeing underestimated how long it takes pilots to diagnose and react — down to precise seconds — when they are being bombarded by multiple, cascading warning alerts. It said that in both crashes, the pilots' control columns would have shaken to warn of an impending stall, and that the pilots would have received several visual and audio alerts about things like altitude and speed.

Ethiopian investigators released preliminary findings into the Ethiopian Airlines crash in April. It said the crew of the doomed jet did everything Boeing recommended when their plane started to nosedive, but that they could not save it. Their final report is expected next year.

Boeing self-regulation

Earlier this year, several U.S. media outlets investigated whether the FAA allowed Boeing too much power to self-regulate. In March, the acting head of the FAA was grilled by a U.S. Senate panel on the subject. 

Daniel Elwell told senators it would cost $1.8 billion US and take 10,000 new employees for the U.S. aviation regulator to handle all aircraft certification internally.

He also said the FAA "is directly involved in the testing and certification of new and novel features and technologies."

Part of what U.S. Congress is currently looking into is whether there should be changes to how the FAA delegates some certification tasks to manufacturers for new airplanes.

In the 737 Max certification, it initially delegated 40 per cent of the work to Boeing and later shifted more work to Boeing, including work on the MCAS.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a report into the practice following its own investigation. It said the FAA faces a "significant oversight challenge" to ensure that companies conducting those tasks "maintain high standards and comply with FAA safety regulations."

Returning to flight

An aerial photo shows Boeing 737 Max aircraft at Boeing facilities at the Grant County International Airport in Moses Lake, Wash., on Sept. 16. (Lindsey Wasson/Reuters)

The Boeing 737 Max has not flown commercially since the March crash.

Air Canada recently updated its plans for the jet, saying it will remain grounded until at least February 2020. Sunwing and WestJet have also confirmed they will not fly the jet before next year. 

U.S. airlines have cancelled 737 Max flights into January and February. 

The FAA has said it will not return the 737 Max to service until the regulator has determined the jet to be safe.

With files from Reuters and The Associated Press