In a starkly direct rebuke to Boeing, Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson met with company CEO Dennis Muilenburg at FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C., on Thursday and told him to pull back on public statements about an imminent return to service for the 737 MAX — a milestone that people close to the details now say is unlikely to happen before mid-February.
That means the worldwide grounding of the MAX, begun on March 13, will stretch closer to a year.
Among the issues that have caused the latest delay is some confusion over pilot checklists that emerged during four days of testing in Seattle a week ago, when Boeing ran pilots from various airlines through a series of emergency flight scenarios to test the “human factors” elements of the new flight control system, including the crew workload.
Two people familiar with the details of all that must be accomplished before the FAA can clear the 737 MAX to fly said Thursday that mid-February is now the earliest realistic target.
As Boeing management weighs how long it can continue to bear the expense of building planes that bring in no immediate revenue, this latest in a long series of schedule slips means a temporary shutdown of the 737 factory in Renton looms as a real possibility .
Back in July, when Boeing projected a MAX return to service in October, Muilenburg warned that a delay to that optimistic timeline could prompt a shutdown to avoid a further pile-up of completed but undeliverable jets.
Clearly, the further the schedule is delayed, the more that risk grows.
American Airlines on Thursday bowed to the inevitability of another delay and announced that it’s pushing the MAX out of its flight schedule until early April, a month later than planned.
Boeing had repeatedly said it expected the FAA to clear its redesign of the MAX this month, with pilot training requirements to be nailed down soon after. Dickson on Wednesday said publicly that the schedule for the first step, approving the plane as airworthy for a return to service, had slipped into 2020.
Dickson called for the meeting, also attended by new Boeing Commercial Airplanes boss Stan Deal, in part because Boeing’s public statements seemed designed to press for the FAA to provide clearance soon. An email the FAA sent Thursday to the House and Senate aviation oversight committees makes clear Dickson wants that to stop.
“The Administrator is concerned that Boeing continues to pursue a return-to-service schedule that is not realistic due to delays that have accumulated for a variety of reasons,” the email states. “More concerning, the Administrator wants to directly address the perception that some of Boeing’s public statements have been designed to force FAA into taking quicker action.”
“The Administrator wants to make clear that both FAA and Boeing must take the time to get this process right. Safety is our top priority and the Administrator believes public statements must reflect this priority,” the email states. “The purpose of the meeting is to ensure Boeing is clear on FAA’s expectations.”
The FAA said Dickson recommended to Muilenburg “that Boeing’s focus should be on the quality and timeliness of data submittals for FAA review.”
“He made clear that FAA’s certification requirements must be 100% complete before return to service,” the email states. “In terms of timeline, he reminded Mr. Muilenburg that FAA controls the review process and that he has told FAA’s aviation safety experts working on continued review of the 737 MAX to take the time they need to get this right and they have his full support.”
Though the wording of the email amounts to a public rap on the knuckles for Muilenburg, Boeing issued a bland statement afterward saying that Muilenburg and Deal had “a productive meeting” with Dickson and his deputy Dan Elwell.
“We committed to addressing all of the FAA’s questions as they assess MAX certification and training requirements,” Boeing said in a statement. “We will work with the FAA to support their requirements and their timeline as we work to safely return the MAX to service in 2020.”
That’s the first tacit acknowledgment from the company that the FAA will not be clearing the MAX to fly again this year.
The four days of pilot testing on human factors and crew workload in Seattle produced mixed results, some of which could delay the process, according to a person with knowledge of the simulator sessions.
Pilots managed to cope with the various emergency flight scenarios they were confronted with, including, for example, a bird strike wiping out an angle of attack sensor at an altitude of 4,000 feet. However, regulators observing the tests were concerned that some of the pilots didn’t follow the expected procedures.
“They were using the wrong checklists,” said one person with knowledge of the tests, adding that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in particular may now require changes to the procedures and checklists.
This issue could open again the debate over whether U.S. pilots need full-flight simulator training rather than an interactive course on an iPad before they fly a MAX with passengers.
The FAA still has to fly a certification flight of the MAX before it approves the software fix to the flight controls.
American Airlines said that prior to April 7, it plans to operate MAX demonstration flights with employees and members of the media on board. After that date, it will phase the jet slowly into commercial service, increasing the number of MAX flights gradually during April.
Because the MAX will be missing from its schedule until then, some flights will be canceled. The airline said it will contact customers whose flights are affected by email or telephone beginning Dec. 22.
The airline added that it will announce its policy toward any passengers who don’t wish to fly on the MAX “in the coming weeks.”
United and Southwest are likely to follow American soon and push out their MAX schedules to April.
Southwest announced Thursday a partial compensation settlement with Boeing for “a portion of projected financial damages” related to the MAX grounding.
Through September, Southwest had reported a $435 million cut in profits from the grounding. While the airline did not disclose the total size of the settlement with Boeing, it said it would share approximately $125 million of the money with employees in a discretionary profit-sharing payout in 2020.
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