Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson on Wednesday is fulfilling a promise he made just months after taking command of the regulatory agency in the midst of Boeing’s 737 MAX crisis.
“I am not going to sign off on this aircraft until I fly it myself and am satisfied I would put my own family on it without a second thought,” Dickson told FAA employees last November.
Shortly before 9 a.m., with the sun in the southwest reddened by a light haze from smoke that’s drifted north from the California wildfires, he took off from Boeing Field in a 737 MAX 7, the smallest model in the MAX jet family.
After a pre-flight check walk around the airplane, Dickson had taxied out onto the runway past a giant 777X widebody test plane that dwarfed his jet.
His mission: a high-profile test flight intended as his personal assurance to the public that the MAX is safe following 19 months of intense scrutiny by his agency.
The flight plan called for him to head east toward Moses Lake then return to Boeing Field in a couple of hours.
Dickson’s flight is the clearest signal yet that the FAA is poised to unground the jet in late October or early November.
The MAX was grounded worldwide in early March 2019 after the second of two fatal accidents that together killed 346 people aboard almost-new aircraft. A series of investigations established that the pilots on the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines jets struggled against a flawed flight control system on the MAX that overcame their commands.
Since then, the FAA and international regulators have been minutely examining the fixes proposed by Boeing.
As the company girds against the new existential threat posed by the historic pandemic-driven aviation downturn, Dickson’s flight is a high-stakes moment.
For the MAX crisis that has consumed Boeing, shattering its plans for accelerated production and causing the loss of significant market share to rival Airbus, it could perhaps at last be a turning point.
Dickson tests Boeing’s fixes
Dickson will brief reporters after landing, at a news conference around 11:30 a.m. that will be broadcast live on the FAA’s website and social-media platforms.
On Tuesday in Seattle, Dickson and FAA Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell completed the recommended new pilot training for the MAX as part of the preparation for the flight.
Dickson is a former Air Force F-15 jet fighter pilot, and as a captain with Delta Air Lines he flew the previous models of the 737 as well as other Boeing and Airbus jets. At Delta, he rose to senior vice president of flight operations, responsible for the safety and operational performance of the airline’s global fleet.
He took charge of the FAA in July 2019.
Testifying in December before the U.S. House Transportation Committee, Dickson reiterated the FAA position that “when the 737 MAX is returned to service, it will be because the safety issues have been addressed and pilots have received all the
training they need to safely operate the aircraft.”
Last December, Dickson starkly rebuked Boeing’s then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg for seeming to push for clearance to fly the MAX by the end of that month.
In August, the FAA laid out the proposed design changes on the MAX that it believes will make it safe. The proposals drew more than 200 comments from the public and aviation experts.
As the ungrounding approaches, foreign aviation regulators are lining up their own requirements and Congress is beginning to consider legislation to reform the process through which the FAA certifies airliners.
Last week, the executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), Patrick Ky, said publicly that his agency expects to sign off on ungrounding the 737 MAX in November.
EASA will stipulate further changes beyond those in the FAA proposal, but Ky said those can be retrofitted after the jet’s return to service and so won’t delay the MAX’s ungrounding.
And on Monday, the House Committee on Transportation announced a bipartisan legislative proposal designed to strengthen the FAA certification process.
However, at this point ahead of the election, it’s unlikely new legislation can be passed before next year.
After Dickson’s flight, several steps remain before final clearance of the MAX.
An FAA report detailing the required pilot training must be published, with a period for public comment.
And a multi-agency Technical Advisory Board must review the final design documentation and issue its report.