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FAA Won’t Say When Boeing 737 Max Might Fly Again; Foreign Regulators Uppity

Summary:
The 737 Max situation has developed not necessarily to Boeing’s advantage. A FAA news conference which presumably had restoring faith in the plane and the agency as a major goal didn’t appear to make much progress on either front. And it also appears that the FAA placing way too much trust in Boeing had led to the regulator losing its hegemony in certifications. Nicely played! Boeing’s two largest US customers, Southwest and American Airlines, had made statements that they anticipated returning the 737 Max to service in August. That timetable was almost certainly the result of expectations set by Boeing. That plan has gone up in smoke. The FAA said it wouldn’t give an idea as to when the 737 Max would be deemed airworthy again, and a year was not out of the picture, although commentators

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The 737 Max situation has developed not necessarily to Boeing’s advantage.

A FAA news conference which presumably had restoring faith in the plane and the agency as a major goal didn’t appear to make much progress on either front. And it also appears that the FAA placing way too much trust in Boeing had led to the regulator losing its hegemony in certifications. Nicely played!

Boeing’s two largest US customers, Southwest and American Airlines, had made statements that they anticipated returning the 737 Max to service in August. That timetable was almost certainly the result of expectations set by Boeing.

That plan has gone up in smoke. The FAA said it wouldn’t give an idea as to when the 737 Max would be deemed airworthy again, and a year was not out of the picture, although commentators seemed to regard that long as highly unlikely.

On top of that, the FAA mentioned that Boeing had missed several deadlines for submitting a software fix for the FAA to evaluate, and was set to get it in this week. Not a good look as far as the airlines with mothballed planes are concerned.

Moreover, while the US press for the most part was putting a positive spin, given the givens, on the FAA’s press conference, the Financial Times reported that foreign regulators, who are set to meet with the FAA today (Thursday) are taking a tough line on the 737 Max recertification, including insisting on simulator training as a requirement. This confirms a risk we and others had raised before: that the FAA, by doggedly defending the 737 Max when other regulators were proven correct in grounding it, is no longer fully in charge of the certification process. At best, it is having to negotiate terms with key foreign regulators.

Key bits from the Wall Street Journal:

cting Federal Aviation Administration chief Daniel Elwell appeared to undermine industry expectations that Boeing Co.’s grounded 737 MAX jets would be heading toward a smooth and predictable return to the skies.

Mr. Elwell repeatedly told reporters at a news conference Wednesday that he couldn’t predict when the fleet would be back in the air, suggesting instead that the process of approving a proposed software fix for the aircraft remains open-ended and subject to various factors—many outside his control.

Some of his comments seemed to signal potentially months of additional delay, as Mr. Elwell appeared to distance himself from plans by some U.S. airlines to put the jets back into operation in August…

The Journal did mention, but downplayed, the further impediment of winning over foreign regulators. Stunningly, it included but failed to flag the significance of the notion that foreign regulators might not accept the FAA’s clean bill of health:

In addition to verifying the revised software, the FAA has to establish new training requirements, create enhanced maintenance standards and—most important—persuade foreign regulators to endorse the bulk of the eventual U.S. plan…

At Thursday’s session, FAA officials will detail progress so far and seek suggestions from foreign participants. Weeks ago, air-safety regulators for Canada and the EU said they planned to conduct separate reviews of changes to the automated flight-control feature, called MCAS, along with a safety assessment of the entire aircraft.

“Other countries and other authorities may take longer” to put the planes back into service, Mr. Elwell said, “and they undoubtedly will.” Meanwhile, the FAA is asking foreign regulators “what else they would like to see from us,” Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s top safety official, told reporters.

The Financial Times account is more pointed, perhaps because the reporters got input on where those foreign regulators stand:

Canada, Europe and Indonesia made clear ahead of the meeting that they would set their own conditions for determining when the plane is safe to fly again, threatening the FAA’s goal of building consensus for a co-ordinated plan to put the 737 Max back into action.

At least with the pink paper, the Canadians were mum on their requirements, but per earlier remarks, training is on the list. Undermining the US role in certifying planes overseas, Indonesia said it is considering having Transport Canada or the European regulator EASA give a second opinion.

The Financial Times said that the Europeans had three “prerequisite conditions,” which Investors Business Daily listed as:

EASA must approve and mandate any design changes by Boeing

EASA must complete an additional independent design review

737 Max flight crews must be “adequately trained”

And China will be even more stringent. Again from the Financial Times:

China, which was the first big regulator to ground the Max and a crucial market for Boeing, could be one of the last countries to lift its ban, aviation sources said. 

Chinese regulators are likely to insist on additional checks before they clear the plane to fly. That could erode the existing convention by which nations recognise safety certifications from the manufacturer nation, and someday provide an opening for Beijing to push for easier recognition of the planes it is developing. Chinese airlines and leasing companies account for at least 10 per cent of Boeing’s unfilled order book for the Max. 

And the list of countries officially not deferring to the FAA includes Brazil:

Brazil, one of the few global regulators that mandated pilot training on the MCAS before allowing the Max to fly, said it continues to conduct “our own evaluations about the aircraft”. 

So Boeing’s 737 Max crashes, and the FAA’s complacency about them, have cost the regulator dearly. And there’s no way for the agency to regain its authority. The US can’t throw its weight around the way it once did.

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