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March 7, 2021

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In Our View: Return of 737 Max a new start for Boeing, state

The Columbian
Published:

Boeing’s 737 Max will soon be returning to the skies. But much work remains for the company to regain its soaring reputation and for Boeing to help boost Washington’s economy.

The 737 Max, which is built primarily at Boeing’s Renton factory, has been grounded worldwide since crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 resulted in a combined 346 deaths. The airliner’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System was implicated in both crashes.

With improvements made to the 737 Max and to pilot training programs, the Federal Aviation Administration this week issued its first airworthiness certificate for one of the modified planes.

That is good news for Boeing. The aerospace giant had about 400 of the planes in service at the time they were grounded and since has built 450 more. In a letter to employees, Boeing CEO David Calhoun promised to proceed deliberately with the plane’s return and to “never forget” the victims of the crashes. “We will honor them by holding close the hard lessons learned from this chapter in our history to ensure accidents like these never happen again,” he wrote.

Aviation, however, is not a trial-and-error process. Regaining the trust of the public will take time — both for Boeing and American aerospace. As Seattle Times reporter Dominic Gates recently explained: “Boeing has suffered through a relentless litany of damning revelations, scathing investigation reports and discoveries of problems.”

Primary among those was lax oversight by the FAA, which unwisely deferred to Boeing in scrutinizing and approving the original MCAS system. Now, each new 737 Max will require an airworthiness certificate, and FAA officials said they expect “to have a sufficient number of inspectors on hand to meet Boeing’s planned delivery schedule for the foreseeable future.”

Congress, meanwhile, appears close to passing a bipartisan bill aimed at changing FAA certification procedures and requiring an expert panel to review Boeing’s safety culture.

The return of the 737 Max is a triumph for Boeing, which has suffered as the coronavirus pandemic has reduced global air travel and orders for new planes. The Seattle-born company, which moved its headquarters to Chicago in 2001, delivered 111 aircraft this year through October — down from 321 for the same period a year ago.

And in October, the company announced plans to move all production of the 787 Dreamliner — along with about 1,000 jobs — from the Puget Sound area to South Carolina.

In 2018, aerospace generated about $70 billion in Washington and employed more than 80,000 workers. Indirectly, the industry supports more than 200,000 jobs in the state. What happens at Boeing is vitally important for all of Washington.

Because of that, the new start that is represented by the return of 737 Max also should be regarded as a new beginning for the state’s relationship with Boeing.

Since the Legislature passed an $8.7 billion tax break for the company in 2013, Boeing has persistently leaked jobs out of the area, violating the spirit of the agreement if not the letter. Gov. Jay Inslee has recommended revisiting Boeing’s myriad tax breaks, but striving for mutually beneficial deals might be more constructive.

Then again, when you or your family board a Boeing plane, there isn’t much consideration for where it was constructed. Safety is the most important factor, meaning the return of the 737 Max is a turning point for one of Washington’s signature companies.

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