From aviation tragedies to missing bolts, a short history of the Boeing 737 MAX

File photo: Boeing begins developing the MAX in August 2011 to try to catch up with European rival Airbus. Picture: Reuters

File photo: Boeing begins developing the MAX in August 2011 to try to catch up with European rival Airbus. Picture: Reuters

Published Jan 9, 2024


Boeing's 737 MAX, which suffered a dramatic blowout of a fuselage panel during a flight over the US state of Oregon, has had a turbulent time in the seven years since it took to the skies.

Here is a short history of the ill-starred plane.

Born to chase Airbus

Boeing begins developing the MAX in August 2011 to try to catch up with European rival Airbus in the lucrative market for single-aisle planes used on short and medium-haul flights.

Airbus had been swamped with orders since launching a new version of its A320 model offering fuel savings of up to 20 percent - the A320 Neo - a year earlier.

Boeing responds with a more fuel-efficient version of its popular 737, the world's best-selling airliner, which enters service in May 2017.

Initial strong demand

With orders pouring in from airlines using large single-aisle planes for long-haul flights, Boeing struggles to keep up with demand.

By the end of January 2019 it has delivered 350 MAX planes, with more than 5,000 others on order.

Forced to announce delays in deliveries to clients, it sends some of its own employees to work alongside engine-maker CFM to try speed up production.

Twin disasters

Tragedy strikes on October 29, 2018.

A MAX operated by Lion Air vanishes from radars shortly after taking off from the Indonesian capital Jakarta and crashes into the Java Sea, killing all 189 people onboard.

Less than five months later, on March 10, 2019, another MAX crashes into a field minutes after takeoff from the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa for Nairobi, Kenya.

All 157 passengers and crew are killed.

The successive disasters force the grounding of the worldwide MAX fleet for 20 months as investigators probe defects in its flight control software, the MCAS anti-stall system.

The investigations conclude that both accidents were caused by the failure of a sensor that wrongly triggered the MCAS, causing it to push down the nose of the plane while the pilots were trying to gain height.

Boeing is ordered by US aviation authorities to correct the flaw in the MCAS and upgrade pilot training protocols.

Second wind

The MAX is cleared to return to service in November 2020.

"I think we come out of here leaner and smarter... but most importantly, safer," Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun says.

Two months later, Boeing agrees to pay $2.5-billion in fines to settle a criminal probe with the US Department of Justice over claims it defrauded regulators overseeing the 737 MAX.

By mid-2021, as domestic travel begins to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, the plane's fortunes start to look up again.

In a vote of confidence for the jet and for Boeing, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines and Ireland's Ryanair all place significant orders.

In May 2023, Ryanair follows up with a massive order for 300 MAX planes worth over $40-billion at list prices.

Grounded again

On January 5, 2024, an Alaska Airlines flight narrowly avoids tragedy when a piece of fuselage comes off a 737 MAX 9 travelling from Portland, Oregon to southern California, leaving a gaping hole in the side of the plane.

No-one is seriously injured but the plane is forced to make an emergency landing.

All 171 planes of the model in the US are grounded pending an inspection.