Government Isn’t Rushing Boeing 737 Max Back to Flight, FAA Chief Says

By Alan Levin | May 23, 2019

U.S. aviation regulators won’t be rushed and have no timeline on when to return Boeing Co.’s grounded 737 Max jet to flight, an official said as the government prepares to hold discussions with dozens of other nations on the plane’s fate.

Federal Aviation Administration acting chief Daniel Elwell said the agency’s technical experts will leave “no stone unturned” as they examine a remedy Boeing is proposing to fix a malfunction linked to two fatal crashes since October.

“If it takes a year to find everything we need to give us the confidence to lift the order, then so be it,” Elwell said to reporters on Wednesday, a day before a meeting with global regulators was set to begin.

The stakes for the gathering in Texas are enormous for Boeing and the FAA. The aircraft manufacturer’s top-selling family of jetliners faces a grounding that could extend for months, while the FAA’s reputation as the leading arbiter of aviation safety is being tested.

A total of 57 delegates from 31 individual countries as well as the European Aviation Safety Agency and the United Nations International Civil Aviation Organization are attending the meetings Thursday in Fort Worth, Texas.

“If there is a crisis in confidence, we hope this will help to show the world that the world still talks together about aviation safety issues,” Elwell said.

While Boeing hasn’t presented its final proposed software fix and the accompanying changes to training to the FAA, the agency will share with other nations the framework for the safety analysis it will use to evaluate the proposals, Elwell said.

Boeing was close to sending a proposed fix to the FAA almost two months ago, but backed off at the last moment when an outside review panel raised concerns, he said.

A so-called non-advocate review at the planemaker on March 26 raised issues with the work that had been completed so far, Elwell said. Elwell didn’t disclose any of the specific issues that the group raised.

The attendees are facing contradictory demands to be both tough on the FAA and Boeing in the name of safety, while at the same time finding a way to get the 737 Max plane back into the air for economic reasons, said one person familiar with what the representatives are thinking.

FAA must demonstrate it is being extremely thorough in its technical evaluation of Boeing’s proposed fixes to the plane while at the same time showing sensitivity to the political pressures the other countries face at home in the wake of the two high-profile crashes, said a second person who has dealt with such discussions in the past. Both people asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the meetings.

Among the FAA’s challenges will be how swiftly other aviation agencies adopt its conclusions about the plane’s possible return to flight.

Agencies around the world in recent years have signed numerous bilateral agreements that allow them to accept each others’ work certifying aircraft, though those agreements allow for exceptions.

Already there are signs that some aviation regulators plan to go it alone, though the people familiar with the talks cautioned that it’s still too early to predict the final outcome.

EASA, the FAA’s equivalent representing most countries in the European Union, has said it is conducting a broad review of the 737 Max’s design, not just the software implicated in the two crashes that took 346 lives. EASA’s actions could further delay resumption of flights and might prompt other nations to wait for it to act before allowing the plane to fly again.

Some countries’ aviation authorities have been talking even tougher about how they’ll treat the 737 Max. Indonesia could keep the aircraft grounded until next year in the wake of the crash there, Director General of Civil Aviation Polana Pramesti said May 20. Two of the nation’s carriers are among the biggest customers of the aircraft.

“Boeing has to be able to assure us, the regulators, that the aircraft is safe,” Pramesti said in an interview. “They also have to regain confidence from the pilots and the airlines, then educate Indonesian customers. I cannot say whether we will keep using the aircraft or not.”

China Acted

The FAA grounded the 737 Max models on March 13 after evidence emerged that a crash three days earlier of an Ethiopian Airlines flight that had just taken off from Addis Ababa had involved an erroneous activation of a device that repeatedly commanded the plane to dive.

The U.S. was one of the last to halt flights on the plane as nations such as China acted days earlier. Elwell has said the FAA needed hard evidence of a link between the two accidents, while other countries said they were acting out of caution.

The same system, Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System or MCAS, was also activated in the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air 737 Max leaving Jakarta.

Chicago-based Boeing has developed a software fix that won’t allow MCAS to push down a plane’s nose more than once and it will rely on data from two sensors instead of one in an attempt to lower the chances that a single malfunction can trigger it.

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