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How Airlines Are Defending Dormant 737 MAX Jets From The Ravages Of Corrosion, Insects And Time

Boeing 737 MAX planes have been stuck on the ground now for five months. With the likelihood rising that they won’t return to service before the winter, some airlines may soon have to deal with the danger that the planes could literally become stuck to the ground.

Tires of planes that are parked for long periods of time can freeze to the tarmac during subzero weather, warns a Boeing maintenance manual for the previous generation of 737 aircraft. It advises maintenance workers to place sand or a coarse fiber mat under the tires and covers over the wheels and brake assemblies to protect them from the corrosive effects of rain and snow.

With the end of summer drawing closer, Air Canada is considering moving its 24 737 MAX planes south to the gentler climes of a desert storage yard, a spokesperson told Forbes. WestJet says it’s content to keep its 13 planes in Canada, spooling up the engines every week and taking them for a spin on the apron around their hangars.

Airlines have had 387 MAX planes sitting quietly at airports and storage facilities around the world since March, when the second of two horrific crashes led aviation authorities worldwide to ground Boeing’s best-selling plane. Boeing is storing roughly another 200 that it has assembled but can’t deliver.

Planes are built to move. Making sure these aren’t damaged from their prolonged grounding has become the mission of a small army of maintenance staff. The longer the planes’ wings are clipped, the more needs to be done. Among the main tools, as prescribed by the 737 manual: copious amounts of yellow 3M vinyl tape No. 471 to seal off gaps and sensors, and an array of lubricants.

Southwest Airlines, the largest operator of the 737 MAX, is storing its fleet of 34 planes in the dry heat of the high Mojave desert at an airfield in Victorville, California. Once a week, maintenance workers power up the Leap-1B engines, which their maker, CFM International, a partnership between General Electric and Safran, recommend should be idled for 15 to 20 minutes to vaporize any moisture that may have collected in the oil and fuel systems and to cover engine parts with a new coat of oil to prevent corrosion. Southwest technicians also boot up the flight computers and auxiliary power units weekly.

The doors of planes stored in the desert are generally opened during summer days so the cabins aren’t damaged by the heat, says David Querio, president of Ascent Aviation Services, which operates at Pinal Airpark in Arizona, one of the largest aircraft storage yards in the world.

Birds sometimes nest on a plane, and, rarely, an animal will take advantage of an open door to take up residence inside. “They’re removed the same day if they’re stupid enough to do that,” says Querio.

As the timeline for the 737 MAX’s return has receded further over the past few weeks, some airlines could decide to put their planes into a state of deeper storage, with the engines preserved and batteries and other sensitive parts removed, says Tim Zemanovic, president of the Minnesota aircraft disassembly firm Fillmore Aviation. Because it requires fewer regular maintenance tasks, this type of storage generally runs half the cost of active storage, at roughly $1,000 a month per plane, he says, but it means it would take more time to ready the planes to fly again when aviation regulators sign off on Boeing’s fixes for the 737 MAX.

In long-term storage, the engines, the single most valuable part on an airliner, are “pickled”: The oil is drained and replaced with an oil mixed with a corrosion prevention solution, and desiccant bags—larger versions of the moisture-removing silica packets put in consumer goods—are placed in the inlets, with gauges that monitor humidity levels. Then the ends are covered to keep out the elements, animals and insects, says Zemanovic, who used to run a storage and maintenance facility at Pinal Airpark.

When planes are dormant for more than two months, Boeing’s 737 maintenance manual calls for gaps in the fuselage to be sealed with vinyl tape and screens placed over drain holes. A protective coating is sprayed onto unpainted metal surfaces. The cabins go dark, with the window shades closed and cockpit windshields covered with aluminum foil tape or other reflective material. Cotton covers are put over the seats and runners protect the carpets.

Planes at a storage yard typically get visited at least once a day to make sure the exterior coverings are intact, says Querio.

The 737 manual lays out a schedule of maintenance procedures to be done at regular intervals that’s heavy on lubrication of myriad parts.

Every week the plane should be scanned for corrosion; every two weeks, electrical systems powered up for two hours. Every 30 days the plane should be moved a third of a wheel’s turn, to prevent the tires from getting flat spots; carpets and seats checked for mildew; and water drained from the sumps of fuel tanks to prevent growth of bacteria or fungi, which can have the consistency of mayonnaise and plug fuel filters.

Every 90 days, the flaps, rudder and other control services need to be exercised.

If the grounding extends to a year, the landing gear may need to be flexed, says Zemanovic, with the plane propped up on giant jacks placed under the wings and the nose. Boeing and Airbus recommend that some models should be restored to operating condition after a year before being shut down again, says Querio.

Boeing expects aviation regulators to sign off on its fixes for the 737 MAX and a revised training regime early in the fourth quarter, but given previous delays and new technical issues that have arisen over the past few months, some industry watchers think the plane’s return to service could slip further. Southwest Airlines has taken the 737 MAX off its flight schedule till January 5; Air Canada has scrubbed the plane through January 8.

A Southwest spokesman said that once the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration declares the model airworthy, the airline expects it will take 120 hours of work on each plane to get them ready to fly again, and 30 to 60 days for the airline’s whole fleet.

One giant task: cleaning the planes. Dust can collect inside planes stored in the desert if the doors are vented, requiring a thorough vacuuming, says Zemanovic, and if the storage facility doesn’t have a concrete wash pad with drains to properly dispose of large amounts of soapy water, workers may have no choice but to wipe down the plane by hand, a laborious process that he says could require a “couple hundred” man hours. Two necessities for the job: 27-foot high work platforms and a mammoth supply of cleaning wipes.

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Source: How Airlines Are Defending Dormant 737 MAX Jets From The Ravages Of Corrosion, Insects And Time

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Boeing May Have To Cut 737 MAX Production Again

With the timeline for ending the grounding of the 737 MAX pushed further out, the potential that Boeing will reduce the production rate of its flagship plane has risen, analysts say.

The company is beginning to show the financial strain of the crisis, announcing Thursday that it would take a $4.9 billion charge in its second-quarter earnings to cover compensation to buyers of the plane, who have been forced to wait for delivery as Boeing works with aviation safety regulators to fix the problems that led to two deadly crashes that killed 346 people.

In April, Boeing dropped 737 output from 52 planes a month to 42, but that production still comes at a considerable cost that isn’t being matched by incoming revenue. Boeing typically only collects 1% to 5% of the purchase price of the plane as a down payment, with the final 50% due on delivery and the balance coming in payments as the delivery date approaches. Boeing also said Thursday that the smaller production runs had raised production costs for the program by $1.7 billion. Meanwhile, undelivered planes are stacking up in temporary storage, presenting Boeing with logistical and maintenance headaches.

“I’d be very surprised if there weren’t another rate cut ahead,” says Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group. “Probably down to 36 or so.”

Boeing kept the 737 production line fully staffed after its April rate cut, but furloughs would be a possibility this time, he says.

There may be signs of a pending slowdown already in the supply chain. Chris Olin of Longbow Research said in a note Thursday that small aerospace parts suppliers his firm canvasses reported a sharp drop in orders in July. That’s “seen by some high-level executives as a leading indicator for additional [737] production cuts” in the second half, Olin wrote.

General Electric and France’s Safran, which produce the plane’s LEAP-1B engine through a joint venture, could decide to lower LEAP production independently for 2020, Olin says. He downgraded his rating of the shares of the specialty metals producers Arconic and Allegheny Technologies to neutral over uncertainty in demand ahead.

Kevin Michaels, managing director of AeroDynamic Advisory, sees a “30% to 40%” chance of a rate cut if the 737 MAX’s return to service slips to December or January. “It would be modest because it needs to keep the supply chain warm,” says Michaels. “Perhaps something like 36.”

Boeing has given no indication that a slowdown is in the offing. In the announcement of its $4.9 billion charge, the company said it was planning to gradually raise production from 42 planes a month to 57 in 2020.

In May, it was thought that Boeing was on track to receive approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to end the grounding of the 737 MAX by late June, but the timeline has slipped amid an exhaustive review of the safety of the plane that has turned up new areas of concern. Late last month, FAA test pilots discovered a data processing problem in the plane’s flight control computer that could occur in the event of a microprocessor failure, which Boeing is hoping to address through a software modification.

Boeing said Thursday it’s assuming that it will receive regulatory approval by early in the fourth quarter for its fixes for that issue and the MCAS flight control program implicated in the two crashes. Speculation had risen earlier in the month that return to service could be delayed to early 2020.

Over the past week, American Airlines, United and Southwest scrubbed the 737 MAX from their schedules through early November.

Airbus could be poised to benefit if Boeing reduces 737 production again, Olin believes. That would open up production capacity in the supply chain that could help Airbus ramp up production of the competing A320neo to 70 a month.

The 737 MAX is the linchpin of Boeing’s commercial aircraft business, with a backlog of 4,547 orders. With the order book dwindling for the 737 NG, it can’t sustain the 737 line on that alone. Boeing only delivered 24 in the second quarter, and it lists just 49 outstanding orders for the 737-800 and 737-800A, and five for business jet versions.

Boeing shares rose 4.5% to close the week at $377.36, with investors apparently happy that the company provided concrete numbers on the extent of the financial damage from the MAX crisis. Boeing shares have fallen 11% since the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, but the stock is still up 16.5% on the year.

Follow me on Twitter. Send me a secure tip.

I help direct our coverage of autos, energy and manufacturing, and write about aerospace and defense. Send tips to jbogaisky[at]forbes.com

Source: Boeing May Have To Cut 737 MAX Production Again

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