In a blow to Boeing, the pilots union for American Airlines has come out strongly against granting the planemaker a deadline extension that would allow the 737 MAX 7 and MAX 10 models to enter service without a redesign of the cockpit system that alerts the crew when something goes wrong.
The American pilots explicitly rejected Boeing’s argument that keeping the system the same as on prior 737 models would avoid potential pilot confusion and therefore would be safer.
The Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act passed by Congress in December 2020 allowed an exemption from upgrading the crew-alerting systems on any planes certified before the end of this year.
Though the Federal Aviation Administration has already certified the earlier MAX models, the MAX 8 and MAX 9, with the legacy crew-alerting system, the MAX 7 and MAX 10 won’t make that deadline. The Allied Pilots Association, or APA, representing the 15,000 pilots of American Airlines, opposes extending it.
“We oppose any extension of the exemption and don’t agree with Boeing’s claim that pilots could become confused when moving from an airplane without the modern alert system to one that is equipped with it,” said APA President Capt. Edward Sicher. “Nothing could be further from our flight deck reality.”
The APA position appears heavily influenced by the two 737 MAX crashes that killed 346 people in 2018 and 2019. On those flights, the crews were clearly confused by the series of distracting and conflicting alerts triggered by a faulty sensor and couldn’t understand what was happening.
“Boeing needs to proceed with installing modern crew-alerting systems on these aircraft to mitigate pilot startle effect and confusion during complex, compound system malfunctions,” he said.
“Once these systems are installed and pilots have been properly trained on them, our crews will be better able to identify system failures and prioritize corrective actions that could save lives,” Sicher added. “Doing so will also help Boeing to continue rebuilding public trust.”
The APA statement comes two days after the FAA detailed in a letter to the Senate that Boeing won’t be able to certify the MAX 10 before next summer, making an extension of the legislative deadline essential to avoid a redesign of the cockpit systems.
“With regard to the 737-10, Boeing’s current project plan timeline has the 737-10 receiving an amended type certificate no sooner than summer 2023,” FAA Administrator Billy Nolen wrote in response to a question from U.S. Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., according to a report by Reuters.
An earlier FAA letter had informed Boeing that the MAX 7 would also not meet the deadline on its current schedule.
Last week, Wicker, ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that if passed would give Boeing the extension it needs.
It’s unclear how that will play out in Congress.
The public opposition from the pilots union at the world’s largest airline by fleet size undercuts Boeing’s argument about safety. It also undermines any claim to putting safety first from a politician voting to grant an extension.
Boeing in a statement last week said “we are not seeking to rush this process, and believe safety is best served by allowing the 737-7 and 737-10 certification effort the time needed to complete this important work without introducing different systems.”
“We are discussing with policymakers the time needed,” Boeing said.
If Boeing doesn’t get the extension it must either redesign the systems and upgrade the MAX cockpits at considerable cost or cancel the MAX 10 and MAX 7.
Whether Boeing would really take such a drastic step is uncertain. Boeing has this year announced multiple orders for the MAX 10 from airline customers. WestJet of Canada ordered 42 last week.
The families of the victims of the two 737 MAX crashes also strongly oppose giving Boeing more time and want the crew-alerting systems upgraded. A July letter to Congress signed by 800 family members and friends of the crash victims accused Calhoun of “resorting to bullying Congress.”