Boeing has uncovered a new potential design flaw with its troubled 737 Max that could lead the aircraft to crash if pilots do not respond correctly, according to a report in The New York Times.

At the request of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), Boeing conducted an internal audit in December to determine whether it had accurately assessed the dangers of key systems given new assumptions about how long it might take pilots to respond to emergencies, the newspaper said, citing a senior engineer at Boeing and three people familiar with the matter.

Among the most pressing issues discovered were previously unreported concerns with the wiring that helps control the tail of the Max, the report added. The company is looking at whether two bundles of critical wiring are too close together and could cause a short circuit.

The newspaper went on to say that Boeing is still trying to determine whether that scenario could actually occur on a flight and, if so, whether it would need to separate the wire bundles in the roughly 800 Max jets that have already been built. Boeing said that the fix, if needed, is relatively simple. The company says that even if it needs to fix the wiring issue, it would only take one to two hours per plane to separate the wiring bundles on the Max using a clamp.

The senior Boeing engineer told The New York Times that finding such problems and fixing them was not unusual and not particular to the Max or to Boeing.

The company informed the FAA about the potential vulnerability last month, and Boeing’s new chief executive discussed possible changes to the wiring on an internal conference call last week, according to one of the people and the Boeing engineer.

Asked for comment by Business Traveller Asia-Pacific, Boeing sent the following statement: “Our highest priority is ensuring the 737 MAX meets all safety and regulatory requirements before it returns to service. We are working closely with the FAA and other regulators on a robust and thorough certification process to ensure a safe and compliant design. We identified this issue as part of that rigorous process, and we are working with the FAA to perform the appropriate analysis. It would be premature to speculate as to whether this analysis will lead to any design changes.”

The recertification of the Max has so far been focusing on the plane’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which has been blamed for the fatal crashes of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019 and Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018.

Boeing is getting closer to getting the 737 Max back in the air, after it was grounded globally in March 2019, though the company’s prediction made in November 2019 that it would be able to start Max deliveries to airline customers the following month turned out to be premature after the recertification of the aircraft slid into the new decade. Based on what aviation regulators are saying, the earliest the Max is now likely to return to service is spring 2020.

Observers of the company will be watching to see whether a recent leadership change at Boeing could lead to an improved handling of the Max crisis. The company announced last month that it was firing its chief executive Dennis Muilenburg, whose response to the crisis was criticised by families of the Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air crash victims. He is being replaced by board chair David Calhoun on January 13. Chief financial officer Greg Smith is currently serving as interim chief executive before Calhoun comes on board.

Boeing said the new leadership change “was necessary to restore confidence in the Company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders”.

If you are a frequent flyer, there is a good chance you may find yourself flying on a Max in 2020. As The New York Times reported in December 2019, Boeing has been working with airlines to prepare how to respond to passengers who are anxious, or even too scared, to fly on the aircraft. According to that article, Boeing surveyed thousands of travellers four times around the world since May and found that scepticism surrounding the Max has improved only marginally, with just 52 per cent of US travellers saying they would be willing to fly on the aircraft.

With all the news about the 737 Max in the headlines, it is easy to forget that statistically aviation, which is highly regulated, remains a safe way to travel. Despite the high-profile Ethiopian Airlines Max accident, the year 2019 was one of the safest years ever for commercial aviation, according to Aviation Safety Network data. Yet, while the number of fatalities has decreased, the number of accidents has increased to a level above the five-year average.

Over 2019, the Aviation Safety Network recorded a total of 20 fatal airliner accidents, resulting in 283 (occupant) fatalities. This makes 2019 the seventh safest year ever by the number of fatal accidents and the third safest in terms of fatalities. The safest year in aviation history was 2017 with 10 accidents and 44 lives lost.

Would you fly on the Max once it returns to service? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section below.