Boeing 737 MAX return question caught in FAA reputation crisis
As Boeing nears the end of the 737 MAX software update, the question remains whether aviation authorities will follow the FAA’s example in clearing the aircraft to fly again ‒ as it is a custom in the industry. The discussions and speculation on the topic has intensified in the last week, as global authorities gathered to the ICAO tri-annual assembly session on September 24, 2019. While media reports indicate that regulators authorities are starting to lean towards the customary method and might un-ground the aircraft if not at the same time as their U.S. counterpart, then shortly after, the FAA’s reputation faced another blow. And this time, the hit came from the home base.
When will the 737 MAX re-enter into service?
The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has no timeline on when Boeing 737 MAX might be deemed safe to fly again, according to a statement by the U.S. authority. FAA representatives met with aviation regulators to discuss the Boeing 737 MAX situation on September 23, 2019, ahead of the beginning of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Assembly 40th session.
During the meeting, FAA administrator Steve Dickson affirmed that the U.S. authority would continue sharing information about its activities regarding the 737 MAX recertification with other regulators around the world and would “welcome feedback” from other civil aviation authorities.
FAA appears to be coming to terms that global authorities might not follow FAA’s lead in deciding on when 737 MAX could return to service. “As you make your own decisions about returning the MAX to service, we will continue to make available to you all that we have learned, all that we have done, and all of our assistance,” Dickson told the authorities.
However, another U.S. body, the Department of Transportation (DoT), appears to be of a different opinion. On September 25, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao told ICAO members that “international coordination is important in all aspects” of clearing the 737 MAX to return to service. “The traveling public will not be well served if there are conflicting signals given by different regulatory authorities around the world,” said Chao.
Alexandre De Juniac, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) CEO, also expressed similar expectations. De Juniac told Bloomberg on September 25, 2019 that they expect the FAA and other organizations to align their schedules and conditions under which the 737 MAX would return to service.
“It is absolutely key to restore the confidence of everybody in this aircraft,” said De Juniac, adding that “strict” alignment of agenda and conditions are “necessary” for the industry to have solid and trustful aircraft certification system. Otherwise, regulators’ disagreements would have a “bad influence” on 737 MAX reentry into service. The disagreement or differences of opinion would “not restore confidence in the system and in the aircraft,” said IATA CEO. “So we urge the regulators to have the common approach”.
New stains for FAA’s reputation?
The speculation on whether or not global aviation authorities will follow the FAA’s lead on recertifying the Boeing 737 MAX comes at a time when the U.S. authority’s ability to property supervise aviation safety is being questioned. Back in March 2019, both the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and Transport Canada (the Canadian transport safety authority) announced they would run their own independent reviews of the 737 MAX software after the update is completed.
On September 24, 2019, the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) has dropped another bombshell on the ailing reputation of the FAA. In letters sent to the country’s President and Congress, the OSC argues that FAA’s safety inspectors, including those who had been working with the Boeing 737 MAX, were “not sufficiently trained to certify pilots”.
The OSC bases its argument on allegations disclosed by a whistleblower. The agency states that the allegations were substantiated by its own investigation that “calls into question the operational review of several aircraft, including the Boeing 737 MAX and the Gulfstream VII”, according to a statement released on the same day.
The OSC outlines the FAA's independent Office of Audit and Evaluation findings, according to which 16 out of 22 safety inspectors had not completed formal training. Eleven of the 16 undertrained safety inspectors did not have a basic position requirement ‒ Certified Flight Instructor certificates. Some of the undertrained inspectors had been working at the Seattle Aircraft Evaluation Group and at least some were assigned to the 737 MAX.
“According to the whistleblower, the unqualified inspectors administered hundreds of certifications, known as “check rides," that qualified pilots to operate new or modified passenger aircraft,” is also written in the OSC statement.
Under qualified staff is a recurring topic in the Boeing 737 MAX context. Previously, the manufacturer was accused of outsourcing some of the 737 MAX software development works to contractors in a push to save on costs.
A lot of criticism has also been directed to 737 MAX pilot training. Boeing marketed the new MAX as almost identical to the NG, which for airlines also carried an appealing benefit of reduced pilot training costs. Allegedly, pilots who already were licensed to fly the Boeing 737 NG were given iPads to complete a one-hour theoretical lecture on how to fly the MAX.
It is questioned whether this training is sufficient and could have prevented the two crashes if simulator training had been required.
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