Boeing Co. is recommending that airlines put pilots through simulator training before they fly the 737 Max — a stunning reversal that is intended to reassure the flying public of the grounded jetliner’s safety after two deadly crashes.
The shift in Boeing’s views threatens more delays for airlines, which would face new logistical hurdles as they rush to prepare pilots to resume flying the plane. The planemaker has notified the Federal Aviation Administration of its recommendation, and the U.S. regulator will make the final decision on training methods for the Max.
With the change, Boeing is ditching its long-held stance that pilots of an older 737 model would only need a short computer course to fly the Max. That was a crucial selling point before the grounding, since airlines could avoid taking aviators out of the field to do pricey simulator sessions. But after less-than-stellar results when airline pilots tested updated Max systems last month, Boeing is changing tack in a bid to reassure regulators, fliers and flight crews.
“For once, Boeing is ahead of the curve,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst at Teal Group. “It’s expensive, time-consuming and worth it.”
Boeing advanced 1.1% to $337.28 at the close in New York. The shares have tumbled 20% since the second Max crash, the biggest drop on the Dow Jones Industrial Average. An Ethiopian Airlines jet fell out of the sky March 10, less than five months after a Lion Air plane went down off the coast of Indonesia. The crashes killed 346 people.
“Public, customer and stakeholder confidence in the 737 Max is critically important to us,” Greg Smith, Boeing’s interim chief executive officer, said in a statement Tuesday. “With that focus Boeing has decided to recommend Max simulator training combined with computer-based training for all pilots prior to returning the Max safely to service.”
Mandating simulator sessions will be costly and could add another month of delays before airlines add 737 Max to their schedules, Aboulafia said.
That will create new headaches ahead of the busy summer travel season — and an extra bone of contention between Chicago-based Boeing and the airlines over who will pay for the costs. Just at the three U.S. carriers that operate the Max, there are more than 18,000 pilots who were qualified to fly the single-aisle aircraft before the grounding began in March.
Minimizing training had been a focus for Boeing engineers during the six-year development of the Max, which boasted more fuel-efficient engines. Sales teams emphasized that pilots already certified for the 737 would be eligible to fly after completing a short iPad course.
But that training approach, along with the plane’s design, became the subject of intense scrutiny after the crashes.
The Max’s bigger engines had to be positioned differently on the wing, necessitating a software system known as MCAS that was intended to make the Max handle similarly to the previous generation of 737 aircraft as the jets approached an aerodynamic stall. The software — which hadn’t been disclosed to pilots — activated accidentally and overwhelmed the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flight crews.
After long resisting, Boeing finally decided to recommend Level B training, which includes simulator sessions, after inviting airline pilots to test redesigned Max flight-control software in early December.
Attending the simulator sessions were pilots from American Airlines Group Inc., Southwest Airlines Co., United Airlines Holdings Inc. and Grupo Aeromexico SAB, said people familiar with the matter. The proceedings were viewed on closed circuit television by regulators from the European Union, Canada and other countries.
More than half of the pilots in the test failed to correctly perform emergency procedures in spite of having undergone a computer-based training module, said one of the people, who wasn’t authorized to speak on the issue and asked not to be named.
None of the flight crews in the December simulator tests actually crashed their planes. But some pilots didn’t immediately recognize the type of failure that led the aircraft in both crashes to automatically dive, the person said. Others didn’t respond properly to indications that the plane was providing erroneous airspeed readings, said the person.
The impact of new simulator requirements is likely to vary significantly from airline to airline, said John Cox, a former 737 airline pilot who is president of Safety Operating Systems.
The disruption should be relatively minor for Air Canada, which hadn’t flown earlier generations of the 737 before adding Max aircraft to its fleet. Its pilots would likely have needed a refresher course in the simulator regardless of the FAA’s decision, and the new training can be rolled into other sessions relatively easily, Cox said.
Airlines with a large 737 pilot corps may consider setting up a smaller group of pilots to fly the Max, at least initially, he said.
United, which has removed the Max from its schedule until early June, is likely to adopt a rolling training schedule for its 737 pilots so it will have crews ready to fly whenever regulators certify the jet’s return to service.
The Chicago-based carrier has also been mulling whether to require additional simulator training time for its 737 pilots regardless of the FAA’s ultimate decision. The airline has one simulator at its Denver training center with three more being delivered this quarter.
“While we have made clear that requiring simulator training for our pilots has been under consideration at United, we support the ongoing process and will continue to await the specific training requirements from the FAA,” United spokesman Frank Benenati said in an email.
Southwest, the largest Max operator, declined to comment on whether required simulator training would force the carrier to create a separate group of pilots who would be the only ones trained to fly the Max. A key part of Southwest’s business model is to have its aviators able to fly each variant in the carrier’s all-737 fleet.
“We’ve been evaluating every possible scenario but it’s still too early to comment on a path forward or potential impact without knowing the final recommendation,” said Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest.
A new training requirement would probably create bottlenecks, said Greg Bowen, a captain at the Dallas-based carrier and chairman of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association’s training and standards committee.
“What we don’t know, we can’t even begin to guess at, is how long is it going to take us to do that” training, Bowen said. “A typical simulator session is four hours. Is the amount of training required going to need four hours, or is it only two hours, or an hour? We don’t know.”
–With assistance from Justin Bachman.
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