FAA Starts Bid to Restore Confidence in Max — and Itself

By Ryan Beene | April 30, 2019

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration on Monday took a potentially important step toward rebuilding confidence not only in the Boeing Co. 737 Max but also in the agency itself, convening a week-long summit of civil aviation regulators from Brussels to Beijing.

Led by former National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Christopher Hart, delegates from eight overseas nations and the European Union are meeting in Seattle to examine the FAA’s original certification of the Max as safe to fly, including the automated flight control system linked to two crashes since October that killed a combined 346 people.

“The point of this body is to attempt to instill confidence globally in the 737 Max and the agency that certified it,” said Jeffrey Guzzetti, the former director of the FAA’s Accident Investigation Division, who is not on the panel.

Boeing and the FAA have been subjected to withering scrutiny from lawmakers, government watchdogs and prosecutors following the 737 Max’s worldwide grounding, now entering its seventh week. Much of that has been focused on how much was known about the Max’s anti-stall countermeasure and how much sway Boeing had in the jet’s certification by the FAA.

More than 40 nations from the U.K. to Australia rejected public reassurances from the FAA after the second crash in Ethiopia last month and grounded the Max before the U.S. agency followed suit — a remarkable rebuke for a body that has been a regulatory leader since the dawn of the jet age.

Boeing’s global rival Airbus SE said on Tuesday it’s concerned that the Max crisis may undermine an alignment between the FAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency that’s been key to easing cooperation in the industry for years.

“These events are creating a lot of tensions and questions,” Airbus Chief Executive Officer Guillaume Faury said on an earnings call. “It’s a concern at this stage, it’s too early to draw conclusions.” EASA didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

South Korean authorities meanwhile plan to determine independently whether the Max should be cleared to fly again in its airspace, according to a transport ministry official. The Asian nation plans to closely monitor steps taken by regulators in Europe and China, the first country to ground the Max, said the person, who wasn’t allowed to speak publicly and asked not to be identified.

Lawsuits against Boeing filed on Monday by two Canadians whose family members died in the March 10 crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 also called the FAA “equally culpable” in the accidents for approving the Max “despite its substantial flaws.”

“The relationship between Boeing and the FAA left a lot of questions,” said Michael Barr, an aviation safety expert at the University of Southern California. “They need a third party, a neutral party with a lot of respect in the industry to evaluate that relationship and see whether or not there needs to be a change.”

The panel aims to do so quickly. The so-called Joint Authorities Technical Review has been asked to complete its findings within 90 days, far faster than the ongoing inquiries and audits by accident investigators, government watchdogs, prosecutors and lawmakers.

The review panel was asked by the FAA to “conduct a comprehensive review of the certification of the automated flight control system on the Boeing 737 Max aircraft,” the agency said in an April 3 statement announcing the effort. It can also make recommendations for improvements on the plane.

The panel includes representatives from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the EU, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Efforts to reach participants in the session were not successful. Before the meeting, the president of Dubai’s civil aviation authority, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, told reporters at the 2019 Arabian Travel Market convention in Dubai that he still had questions about the plane.

“We want to know exactly what’s happening, the details. There are still areas that aren’t being answered 100 percent yet,” said Sheikh Ahmed, who is also the chairman of Emirates, the world’s biggest long-haul carrier, and its sister company FlyDubai, which has had to ground 14 737s. “Communication with Boeing could be better,” he added.

Participants on the FAA panel “are committed to a single safety mission, and will not rest where aviation’s safety record is concerned,” an FAA spokesman said in a statement Monday. “We expect the JATR to engage in a free and candid discussion that exchanges information and improves future processes.”

As the meeting got underway, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg defended the software system linked to the crashes in Ethiopia and off the coast of Indonesia. At the company’s yearly investors meeting in Chicago, he said the software met company standards and that the jet wasn’t rushed to market.

Guzzetti likened the FAA review to a similar one commissioned by the agency in 1994 to review the flight controls of an earlier version of the 737 after two fatal crashes involving the jet. That effort produced 27 recommendations related to aircraft design changes in just a few months.

Those conclusions, however, were overshadowed by NTSB findings years later that a failure mode in the 737 could cause the rudder to move in the opposite direction to that commanded by pilots, leading to costly changes, said Guzzetti, who participated in that review while at the NTSB.

“In the end, it didn’t really move the needle,” he said of the FAA’s review. “It was really the final NTSB investigation and recommendations and how Boeing and the industry responded.”

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