Checkpoint Asia

Europe and China Won’t Follow the US in Certifying the 737 MAX to Fly Again in November

A bummer for Boeing as EU and China seem determined to maintain newfound independence from the FAA

They will be able to fly again but only on domestic US  routes

The Boeing 737 MAX was expected to be flying again in October. Yesterday Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg pushed that date to November:

Boeing chairman and chief executive Dennis Muilenburg on Wednesday reiterated his projection that, despite concerns publicly expressed by Europe’s air safety regulator, the 737 MAX should begin to return to service around November.

This is unlikely to be the last change of the date. Muilenburg had additional bad news:

However, he conceded that lack of alignment among international regulatory bodies could mean that the grounded jet may first resume flying in the United States, with other major countries following later.“We’re making good, solid progress on a return to service,” Muilenburg said, speaking at a Morgan Stanley investor conference in Laguna Beach, Calif. He later added that “a phased ungrounding of the airplane among regulators around the world is a possibility.”

The “phased ungrounding” means that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration would certify the plane as being safe while other regulators would still not do so. U.S. passengers would be asked to fly on a plane that the rest of the world would still consider too unsafe to fly. 737 MAX flights from the U.S. to other countries would still be grounded as would the by far largest part of the total fleet in Europe and China.

It is doubtful that insurance providers, U.S. airlines, their passengers and their pilots would welcome such a “phased” move. It is an extremely risky behavior. Any accident during that time, no matter for what reason, would bring the affected airline, Boeing and the FAA into even deeper trouble.

It is likely that Boeing and the FAA would like to blame the foreign regulators for making late or unreasonable demands. But the history of the two deadly 737 MAX accidents and the development since prove that only Boeing and the FAA are to blame for this.

The Muilenburg statement followed a September 3 presentation (pdf) by the chief of the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) Patrick Ky for the European parliament. It documents how EASA early on told the FAA and Boeing what it would do before allowing the plane back into the air.

On April 1 EASA set 4 conditions:

  1. Design changes proposed by Boeing are EASA approved (no delegation to FAA)
  2. Additional and broader independent design review has been satisfactorily completed by EASA
  3. Accidents of JT610 and ET302 are deemed sufficiently understood
  4. B737 MAX flight crews have been adequately trained

The most important statement in the above is that EASA will not rely on the FAA’s judgment of the 737 MAX flight safety but make its own one. This is the consequence of the FAA’s delegation of certification authority to Boeing and its very late grounding of the plane.

Ky openly blamed the FAA for giving too much authority to Boeing:

“Yes, there was a problem in this notion of delegation by the FAA of the MCAS safety assessment to Boeing,” Ky told the EU Parliament committee.“This would not happen in our system,” he insisted. “Everything which is safety-critical, everything which is innovative … has to be seen by us and not delegated.”

EASA tasked 20 of its experts, test pilots and engineers with the review of the 737 MAX. They evaluated 70 test points and in June and July performed simulator test flights. Significant technical issues were found and communicated to Boeing in early July. Solving these issues is a condition for the plane’s re-certification:

These are:

  • Lack of exhaustive monitoring of the system failures resulting in a stabiliser runaway
  • Too high forces needed to move the manual trim wheel in case of a stabiliser runaway
  • Too late disconnection of autopilot near stall speed (in specific conditions)
  • Too high crew workload and risk of crew confusion in some failure cases, especially Angle of Attack single failure at take-off

Boeing was expected to provide solutions for each of these issues.

But in a August 2019 meeting of international regulators Boeing failed to present them:

Friction between Boeing Co. and international air-safety authorities threatens a new delay in bringing the grounded 737 MAX fleet back into service, according to government and pilot union officials briefed on the matter.The latest complication in the long-running saga, these officials said, stems from a Boeing briefing in August that was cut short by regulators from the U.S., Europe, Brazil and elsewhere, who complained thathe plane maker had failed to provide technical details and answer specific questions about modifications in the operation of MAX flight-control computers.

As a consequence of Boeing’s unwillingness EASA went public with its demands by putting them into the above presentation. Even under political pressure there is no way EASA can now go back on them.

EASA will have its own pilots doing the certification flights on the revamped 737 MAX. They will test it with the modified MCAS as well as without it. They will also test the other points EASA listed.

The flight safety regulators do not provide technical solutions for the problems they find. They only tell Boeing to provide and implement designs that satisfies a regulator’s demands. If any of the points above is not satisfactory solved EASA will not allow the 737 MAX to fly in Europe. Other regulators like the Chinese CAAC will likely follow EASA on the issue but may also add additional points. Some 80% of Boeing’s single aisle planes are sold into foreign markets. These will not be allowed to fly until the EASA’s and others’ demands are satisfied.

Boeing has so far provided a solution for the Flight Control Computer problems. It has yet to improve the confusing alarms, crew procedures and the associated training. Boeing does not want mandatory simulator training for new 737 MAX pilots and the FAA seems to agree with it on that point. But Canada already said that it will demand such training and EASA and others are likely to do the same. Boeing has given no appropriate response for the Angle of Attack integrity issues. EASA wants a third AoA sensor or an equivalent technical solution. The manual trim wheel problem, which also applies to the older 737 NG type, is also still an open issue.

Muilenberg does not seem to understand (pdf) that Boeing has to do more about these issues than ‘answer questions’:

Rajeev Lalwani Analyst, Morgan Stanley & Co. LLCQ
… we’ve all seen the added sensor chatter. So we’d love for you to clarify what is and isn’t accurate.Dennis A. Muilenburg Chairman, President & Chief Executive Officer, The Boeing Co
[…] we’re going to respect individual questions from different regulators and EASA has brought up some questions and that we’re working our way through. I wouldn’t see those as divisive. I just think those are questions that we need to answer as part of the process. And questions around things like angle of attack, system design. Recognize that our architecture on Boeing airplanes is different than Airbus airplanes. And that’s always been a topic of discussion; that doesn’t necessarily mean hardware changes. In some cases, those questions can be answered with simulation work or software updates or process updates. So there’s no specificity on answers. They’re just question areas that we work our way through as part of the normal certification process. So I would describe it that way. I think we’ve got to pay attention to it, lot of work to do to answer questions. But everyone’s motivated to work together here and it creates timeline uncertainty.

The lack of AoA sensor redundancy and the blocked manual trim wheel need technical solutions. “Answering questions” will not provide those. I for one can not see that EASA or CAAC will let Boeing get away with this.

Muilenburg’s admission that the plane is not ready for international certification is devastating news for the company even as he tried to sell its as progress. The FAA might lift the grounding of the plane under political pressure but other regulators will not follow through. The public uproar that will be caused by that will make it nearly impossible to sell tickets for 737 MAX flights.

Even if Boeing finds solutions that international regulators can finally accept, their implementation will take additional months. The AoA sensor and trim wheel issues will likely require hardware changes to the 600 or so existing MAX airplanes. The demand for simulator training will further delay the ungrounding of the plane. There are only some two dozen 737 MAX simulators in this world and thousands of pilots who will need to pass through them.

These technical and organizational problems have all been known for several months. EASA and others pointed them out early and often. But Boeing is still dragging its feet instead of solving them. The delays caused by this unreasonable behavior risk the company’s sales, reputation and maybe even its existence.

Source: Moon of Alabama

Previous Moon of Alabama posts on Boeing 737 MAX issues:

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