The Federal Aviation Administration has proposed a number of changes to the pilot training requirements for the 737Max as a condition of the plane’s recertification. These changes include requiring dedicated simulator time and specific training on the use and control of the MCAS software that was at the heart of the two major crashes of the airplane. These changes are logical and directly related to ensuring the plane is safe when returned to service. During the comment period, likely there will be attempts to weaken these standards. But whatever standards are finalized, the 737Max will undoubtedly require significantly more training for pilots flying earlier versions of the airplane than Airbus A320 pilots who move to the A320NEO .

Before the introduction of the A320 NEO, Boeing
was debating a new-design narrow body airplane against a re-engining of their popular 737NG model. The launch of the A320NEO and its immediate commercial success forced Boeing to scrap any thoughts of a new aircraft and pivot to a 737NG re-engining. The A320NEO promised customers large fuel savings with the choice of two engine manufacturers. The physical structure of the plane made it possible for Airbus to hang a much larger engine under the wing without significantly affecting the aircraft’s aerodynamics. Pilots current in the A320 could train into the A320NEO with a modest, non-simulator based training protocol. For operators of the A320, this was big selling point because they could buy the new plane and not be burdened with long and expensive pilot training.

Boeing’s decision to re-engine the 737 to compete with the A320NEO started from a different point. The wings of the 737 are lower, and anyone who has flown Southwest
has noticed how the engines look a little flatter on the bottom as a result. To accommodate the larger engine required for the fuel savings, Boeing engineers were required to move the engines forward a bit and mount them higher to achieve the required ground clearance. This changed the aerodynamic properties of the plane more significantly than the larger engines did on the A320. The “Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System” (MCAS) was developed to address these changes in a way so that the pilots didn’t see a big difference from flying the earlier 737 model. With the software, Boeing claimed, Boeing pilots current on the older 737s could train into the new 737Max with a minimum profile, no-simulator protocol like that used for the A320NEO. Operators liked this of course and the plane sold very well, as expected given the success of the A320NEO, and then the two crashes happened and the plane has been grounded since.

The push to minimize the training envelope for the 737Max was undoubtedly driven by the competition with the A320NEO. Imagine how hard a sales pitch it would be to go to an airline and say “if you buy my airplane, your pilots will need dedicated simulator hours to learn to fly it even if they are current on the 737NG”. They would know that Airbus would not have to say this for pilots moving into the A320NEO from the original A320, and know that the airline would say “well, then, Boeing, you’re going to pay for that training, right?”.

And this is exactly what will happen for the airlines that have already committed to the 737Max. Any new training requirements will be Boeing’s responsibility, as any airline worth its salt will make it clear that the airplane they agreed to buy is not the airplane they now have. The 737 and A320 sized airplanes are the most popular in the world, flown on every populated continent and by hundreds of airlines. This size category will stay popular for many years given the distance and market size of most airline markets, meaning that Boeing and Airbus will continue to be fighting for new orders from airlines all over the world. In this battle, Airbus has gained a decided edge not because the 737Max was grounded due to two crashes, but because the result of that is a less competitive 737Max where Boeing will directly or indirectly need to pay for this increased pilot training in order to sell the plane.

There is also the issue of whether Boeing will scrap the “Max” identifier altogether, to distance the recertified plane from its original flaws. Either way, some may think that customers will avoid the plane and this may be true for a tiny number of people. Most flyers don’t know if they’re boarding an Airbus or Boeing. let alone the specific model. The consumer reaction to the recertified 737Max will not be a sales challenge, as airlines who are looking for good operating and maintenance economics will compare this plane to other options and choose it if they feel they get the best overall deal. But the economics of the 737Max has changed in multiple ways: physical changes to make it work as originally sold, plenty of legal fees to absorb, acceptance of more training needed to get the plane back in the air, and the likely need for pricing incentives to overcome the general concerns about a plane that has crashed twice early in its service life. Meanwhile, the Airbus A32oNEO continues to perform well. No airline or airplane manufacturer is out of the woods yet. Companies are working to both survive and change in ways to make them stronger as we work through this crisis. In this effort, Airbus has taken a lead in single aisle aircraft production while Boeing will have a new sales challenge when the 737Max starts flying again.