Boeing has been anxious to get its 737 MAX cleared to fly again so it can start delivering what used to be a key moneymaker, but the latest schedule information from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) — including a lengthy public comment period — suggests the process will be stretched a bit further.
The FAA said Tuesday it will soon formally publish the proposed design changes to the Boeing 737 MAX flight control system as well as proposed new pilot procedures, and will allow 45 days for public comment ahead of clearing the jet to fly passengers again.
While this is a clear signal that federal approval for the 737 MAX to return to service in the U.S. is approaching, a person familiar with the steps ahead said it pushes the likely date for a go-ahead to mid-October, some 19 months after the plane was grounded.
Previously, Boeing had privately indicated that the jet might be ungrounded in September. Some within the company had hoped the FAA might issue clearance for the MAX that took effect immediately, with public comment possible afterwards.
But given the intense scrutiny of the jet’s re-certification and continued public suspicion of the MAX after two crashes, that would have invited accusations of predetermining the outcome, and even potential legal action. The FAA has opted for the standard process, requiring a public comment period ahead of the decision.
“In keeping with our commitment to remain transparent, the (notice) will provide 45 days for the public to comment on proposed design changes and crew procedures to mitigate the safety issues identified during the investigations that followed the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines accidents,” the agency said in a statement.
Typically, such an FAA invitation for public comment draws responses from interested parties in the industry, such as airline operators, pilot unions and engineering experts.
In this case, given widespread public concern about the jet’s safety, a wider range of comments is likely, including from the families of the 346 people who died in the two crashes and perhaps from the Congressional committees that have been investigating the accidents.
More hurdles to come
The FAA statement noted that while publishing the proposed changes is an important milestone for the MAX return to service, “a number of key steps remain” and it “will not speculate when the work will be completed.”
After the public comment period closes, the FAA will take some weeks to review the comments and respond to them in a public posting in the Federal Register.
The remaining steps then include a report issued by both the FAA and a panel of international regulators — the Joint Operations Evaluation Board (JOEB) — on proposed new training procedures for 737 MAX flight crews. That will also be posted for public comment.
In addition, the 737 MAX Technical Advisory Board (TAB) — consisting of experts from nine civil aviation authorities worldwide as well as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the FAA — must review Boeing’s final submission of documents on the MAX design changes to evaluate compliance with all FAA regulations.
Only then will the FAA be able to issue an Airworthiness Directive, which will lay out for airlines exactly what design changes must be installed on each airplane before it may re-enter commercial service.
This directive would finally be Boeing’s long-awaited clearance to reenter service.
With that, U.S. airlines could start taking their parked MAX planes out of mothballs and start training their pilots on the new procedures. Scheduled domestic passenger flights on the MAX could follow some 30 to 60 days later.
Even after the FAA gives this go-ahead, the intense industry crisis triggered by COVID-19 that has killed demand for air travel and slowed all commercial jet deliveries means that Boeing’s planned ramp-up in MAX production will be much slower than hoped for.
Ken Herbert, an industry analyst with investment bank Canaccord Genuity, in a note to investors earlier this week projected just 40 MAX deliveries for the year — and that was assuming Boeing won FAA clearance in mid-September.
“The order outlook for the MAX continues to weaken due to both demand and financing uncertainty,” Herbert wrote.
Since the beginning of the year, just over 800 firm orders for the MAX have either been canceled outright or removed from the backlog as doubtful.
The FAA reiterated Tuesday that its process of re-assessing the safety of the MAX has been painstaking and won’t be rushed.
“The agency continues to follow a deliberate process and will take the time it needs to thoroughly review Boeing’s work,” the FAA said. “We will lift the grounding order only after FAA safety experts are satisfied that the aircraft meets certification standards.”
Boeing declined to speculate on a timeline for the MAX’s return.
“Boeing is working closely with the FAA and other international regulators to meet their expectations as we work to safely return the 737 MAX to service,” the company said in a statement.