Boeing on Tuesday reversed its long-held position that pilots would not need full flight simulator training before flying the 737 MAX after the jet is cleared to return to service.
“Boeing has decided to recommend MAX simulator training combined with computer-based training for all pilots prior to returning the MAX safely to service,” interim Boeing CEO Greg Smith said in a statement.
He added that the change in approach was spurred because “public, customer and stakeholder confidence in the 737 MAX is critically important to us.”
The prospect of extensive simulator training now adds another big logistical hurdle before the MAX can resume commercial flights. There are only 34 full-motion MAX simulators in the world, eight of them in the U.S., and tens of thousands of pilots who will need time on one. The impact depends on the details of the training requirements, such as how long and extensive the simulator training must be, which are still unknown.
Boeing’s change in direction was spurred by the results of four days of testing in Seattle last month, when Boeing ran pilots from American Airlines, Southwest, United and Aeromexico through a series of emergency flight scenarios in MAX flight simulators, a person familiar with the matter said. The purpose was to test the “human factors” elements of the updated flight control system, including the crew workload.
All of the pilots managed to eventually maintain control when confronted with various emergencies, including the type of system failure that occurred in the two fatal MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. However, about half of the pilots in the testing failed to follow the correct emergency procedures.
“They were using the wrong checklists,” said one person with knowledge of the tests.
In developing the MAX, Boeing sought to avoid the need for simulator training because it’s expensive for airlines. For U.S. airlines to run all their pilots through the limited number of available flight simulators will take thousands of hours — hours when the companies earn no revenue from ticket-buying passengers.
Dennis Tajer, a captain with American Airlines and spokesman for that airline’s union, the Allied Pilots Association, said that when American runs its pilots through their regular training updates, it consists of a two-hour pre-brief in a classroom followed by four hours in the simulator.
He said airlines have been given no information yet as to whether the MAX training would require a full four-hour simulator session or may be more limited.
American has about 4,200 pilots who fly the 737 and would need the MAX simulator training. United has about 4,400 and Southwest has more than 9,000.
As it pitched the MAX to airlines in 2011, Boeing promised the MAX would handle so much like the previous 737 NG model, and its cockpit would be so similar, that minimal training consisting of a short course on an iPad would be all that was needed for a pilot to transition from the earlier 737 to the MAX.
The expected savings from that were so important to airlines that in December 2011, when MAX launch customer Southwest Airlines placed the first order for 150 of the jets, Boeing included in the contract a clause guaranteeing a $1 million per airplane refund if simulator training were required.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, D- Ore., chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure that’s investigating the cause of the MAX crashes, in a statement Tuesday lamented that “it took two deadly crashes, numerous investigations and untold public pressure before Boeing arrived at this decision.”
“From its inception, Boeing’s business model for the 737 MAX was premised on Boeing’s unreasonable, cost-saving assurance to airlines that pilots qualified to fly …(the earlier 737 model) should not undergo simulator training to fly the 737 MAX.”
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which will set the regulatory requirement regarding what pilot training is required in the U.S., is likely to follow Boeing’s recommendation.
Later this month, a key part of the process for returning the MAX to commercial service will be the convening of the Joint Operations Evaluation Board (JOEB), a body of about 14 U.S. and foreign air carrier flight crews with diverse training that will evaluate the new systems on the MAX in full-motion simulator tests and come up with recommendations on what pilot training is required.
The FAA will use the data from the JOEB tests to develop official recommendations for pilot training.
“The FAA is following a thorough process, not a set timeline, to ensure that any design modifications to the 737 MAX are integrated with appropriate training and procedures,” the agency said Tuesday, adding that it will consider Boeing’s recommendation during the JOEB process.
Once the training regimen is firmed up and the MAX cleared to fly again, the shortage of MAX flight simulators will pose a problem for airlines.
Airlines operate 26 MAX simulators worldwide while Boeing has another eight at its pilot training sites in Miami, London, Shanghai and Singapore. In the U.S., Boeing has three in Miami; American has one in Fort Worth, Texas; United has one in Denver; and Southwest has three in Dallas.
“MAX simulators are like unicorns,” said the APA’s Tajer.
It’s unclear if Boeing could add software to the more than 200 simulators designed for the prior 737 NG model so they could be upgraded to simulate the MAX systems.
The limited availability of simulators will likely lead American and Southwest to reassess previous plans to have all their 737 pilots complete the MAX training before they introduce the MAX to passenger service.
When the expected MAX training was to be done on an iPad at any location during the pilot’s downtime, all the pilots could be asked to accomplish the training requirement in matter of a few weeks. Now it will take much longer.
United spokesman Frank Benenati said Tuesday the Chicago-based carrier plans to train its pilots “on a rolling basis,” so the MAX can be introduced with a core group of pilots before all the 737 pilots finishing the training. American and Southwest are now likely to do the same.
That means splitting off the MAXs into a sub-fleet of the 737s and assigning them to fly specific routes with MAX-trained crews assigned for those routes only.
But doing this makes the airline’s aircraft scheduling much less flexible.
If an earlier model 737 has a maintenance problem and can’t take off, the airline won’t be able to switch in a MAX from another location to take its place unless the crew happen to be qualified for the MAX.
Neither the airlines nor the pilot unions had any prior knowledge of Boeing’s decision.
Captain Tajer of the APA and Captain Jon Weaks, who heads the Southwest Airlines Pilots Union, both complained that they had heard no details about what training is contemplated directly from Boeing or the FAA and were not asked for their input regarding Boeing’s decision.
“As the representative of the largest single group of 737NG and MAX pilots, it is vital we are involved in the process, as was promised by both Boeing and the FAA months ago,” Weaks said.