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737 MAX cleared for flight — after software upgrades

Two years after the catastrophic crash of a Boeing 737 MAX jet in Indonesia touched off an aviation crisis, the Federal Aviation Administration today laid out the path for hundreds of 737s to return to flight.

But that can’t happen immediately: It’ll take months for the FAA to check the implementation of changes in pilot training procedures, and verify all the fixes that will be made. All 737 MAX planes have been grounded worldwide in the aftermath of a second crash that occurred in Ethiopia in March 2019.

“This is not the end of this safety journey,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told CNBC. “There’s a lot of work that the airlines and the FAA and Boeing will have to do in the coming weeks and months.”

Stan Deal, president and CEO of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, said in a news release that today’s FAA directive was an “important milestone” but agreed that there’s a lot of work to be done. “We will continue to work with regulators around the world and our customers to return the airplane back into service worldwide,” Deal said.

The key fixes involve software rather than hardware — and that part of the job is more like installing a Windows update than installing an actuator.

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Cosmic Tech

Virgin Hyperloop takes on its first passengers

It’s been seven years since SpaceX founder Elon Musk unveiled his concept for a hyperloop, a network of tubes through which passengers could travel between cities at near-supersonic speeds.

Now Virgin Hyperloop has finally given two passengers a ride.

The 1,640-foot (500-meter) test run in the Nevada desert lasted only about 15 seconds, reaching a top speed of merely 107 mph (172 kilometers per hour). Nevertheless, it was a cause for celebration on the part of the first-ever hyperloop passengers — Josh Giegel, Virgin Hyperloop’s co-founder and chief techology officer; and Sara Luchian, the venture’s director of passenger experience.

“When we started in a garage over six years ago, the goal was simple — to transform the way people move,” Giegel said in a news release issued after the Nov. 8 trip down the DevLoop test track. “Today, we took one giant leap toward that ultimate dream, not only for me, but for all of us who are looking towards a moonshot right here on Earth.”

Luchian said it was only natural that Virgin Hyperloop executives would take what was billed as humanity’s first hyperloop trip after conducting 400 test runs without people on board. “What better way to design the future than to actually experience it firsthand?” she asked.

British billionaire Richard Branson, who made the venture previously known as Hyperloop One part of his Virgin Group corporate family three years ago, hailed the debut of the two-seat XP-2 prototype pod.

“With today’s successful test, we have shown that this spirit of innovation will in fact change the way people everywhere live, work, and travel in the years to come,” he said after the run.

The cushy XP-2 vehicle is a scaled-down version of the production vehicle, which is being designed to seat up to 28 passengers.

Pegasus XP-2 made use of electric propulsion and magnetic levitation to zoom smoothly down the DevLoop’s low-pressure test tube. Giegel told The New York Times that the ride didn’t feel “that much different than accelerating in a sports car.”

Back in 2013, Musk laid out a plan for a network of hyperloop tubes that could cut the travel time between San Francisco and Los Angeles to 35 minutes. At first, he left it to others to commercialize the idea. But in 2016, he founded a venture known as the Boring Company to build somewhat less ambitious underground transit networks.

Since then, the Boring Company has pursued plans to build such networks in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago and the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. corridor. SpaceX has also sponsored a series of collegiate-level hyperloop pod races.

Several other ventures are trying to commercialize the hyperloop concept, for cargo as well as passenger applications, but Virgin Hyperloop has the highest profile. The company has raised more than $400 million in investment, and last month it announced that it would set up a Hyperloop Certification Center in West Virginia.

Virgin Hyperloop has proposed a variety of projects for locales ranging from Texas, North Carolina and the Upper Midwest in the U.S. to India and the Middle East. The company has said the first networks could win approval in the 2022-2023 time frame. But that timetable has run up against regulatory realities, and some critics question whether the technology will ever be economically viable.

In July, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a roadmap for moving ahead with hyperloop networks, tunneling technologies and other novel transit concepts. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said the roadmap will “help address legitimate public concerns about safety, security and privacy without hampering innovation.”

There could be big changes ahead in transportation policy: Right now, it looks as if President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for a “second great rail revolution” will focus on conventional high-speed rail. But if hyperloop ventures can grab a bigger share of the spotlight, as Virgin Hyperloop did this weekend, they just might grab a bigger piece of the pie as well.

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GeekWire

Aviation vision fueled by hydrogen and electricity

Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX says it’s partnering with a Los Angeles startup called Universal Hydrogen to retrofit 40-passenger regional aircraft with carbon-free, hydrogen-fueled electric powertrains.

The partnership opens up a new frontier for MagniX, which is already involved in flight tests for all-electric versions of smaller airplanes such as the de Havilland Beaver (for Vancouver, B.C.-based Harbour Air) and the Cessna Grand Caravan.

This time, MagniX and Universal Hydrogen aim to transform the de Havilland Canada DHC8-Q300, better known as the Dash 8. The Dash 8 is a time-honored twin turboprop traditionally used for commercial regional air service. If the project succeeds, the lessons learned can be applied for the development of retrofit conversion kits for the wider ATR 42 family of aircraft.

Universal Hydrogen’s plan for the Dash 8 calls for MagniX to provide an electric propulsion system in the 2-megawatt class for each wing, powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

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GeekWire

Kitty Hawk shifts gears on flying-car plans

California-based Kitty Hawk, the flying-car venture backed by Google co-founder Larry Page, says it’s winding down its Flyer project, which created an ultralight aircraft designed to fly over water.

Get the news brief on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

All-electric Cessna airplane takes to the air

MagniX airplane and Roei Ganzarski
MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski talks about his company’s all-electric Cessna Grand Caravan airplane, parked in the background at Moses Lake’s airport after its first flight. Ganzarski wears a mask to conform to social distancing requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. (MagniX via Facebook)

An all-electric version of one of the world’s best-known small utility airplanes hummed through its first flight today at Moses Lake in central Washington state.

Redmond, Wash.-based MagniX and Seattle-based AeroTEC were in charge of the test, which focused on the performance of a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan powered by MagniX’s 750-horsepower Magni500 propulsion system.

During today’s 30-minute-long test flight, the hum of the modified eCaravan’s motor was drowned out by the relative roar of the chase plane’s engine. “The small Cessna is making about double the noise,” MagniX CEO Roei Ganzarski said during his webcast commentary.

AeroTEC test pilot Steve Crane took the plane up as high as 2,500 feet during what he termed a “flawless” test flight.

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GeekWire

Boeing resumes 737 MAX jet production

737 MAX assembly
The first 737 MAX 8 plane undergoes final assembly at Boeing’s Renton plant in 2015. (Boeing Photo)

Boeing says it has resumed 737 MAX production at its factory in Renton, Wash., with more than a dozen initiatives implemented to enhance product quality and workplace safety amid the coronavirus pandemic.

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GeekWire

Trump tweets support for Elon Musk and Tesla

Tesla car factory
Tesla’s factory in Fremont, Calif., became the focus of a coronavirus conflict. (Tesla Photo)

Tesla CEO Elon Musk’s dispute with county authorities over the reopening of the company’s California car factory was injected into President Donald Trump’s Twitterstream today.

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GeekWire

Boeing plans cutbacks amid coronavirus losses

Boeing 777
A Boeing 777 jet is assembled at the company’s plant in Everett. (Boeing Photo)

Boeing says it’s planning to reduce its workforce by 10% and cut back on production of wide-body jets in response to the coronavirus pandemic’s dramatic effect on the aviation industry.

“We will be a smaller company for a while,” David Calhoun, Boeing’s CEO and president, told investors today during a conference call.

The moves came as the company reported an adjusted loss of $1.7 billion and a negative cash flow of $4.7 billion for the first quarter of the year. It was the second quarterly loss in a row, but it wasn’t as bad as analysts feared. As a result, Boeing’s shares finished today’s trading session up nearly 6%, at a closing price of $139.

In a letter to employees, Calhoun said that the pandemic has delivered a “body blow to our business.”

“The aviation industry will take years to return to the levels of traffic we saw just a few months ago,” he wrote.

In response, the company has started executing a plan for a 10% reduction in total workforce through a combination of voluntary layoffs, natural turnover and involuntary layoffs as necessary.

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GeekWire

Boeing reorganizes for ‘post-pandemic’ era

Greg Smith
Greg Smith is Boeing’s chief financial officer and executive vice president of Enterprise Performance & Strategy. (Boeing Photo)

Boeing has put its chief financial officer in charge of a newly formed group called Enterprise Operations, Finance & Strategy, as part of a reorganization aimed at streamlining the company’s top leadership and preparing for what Boeing calls “the post-pandemic industry footprint.”

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GeekWire

Boeing gets set to ramp up jet production

Boeing 767s in factory
Boeing 767 jets take shape at the company’s factory in Everett, Wash.  (Boeing Photo)

Boeing says it’s planning to resume all commercial airplane production in the Seattle region starting next week, more than three weeks after operations were shut down due to the coronavirus outbreak.

About 27,000 employees will be brought back to work sites ranging from Boeing’s wide-body airplane factory in Everett to its 737 production facility in Renton, using a phased approach, the company said in a news release.

Boeing said it’s taking extra precautions to keep its workers safe.

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