FORT WORTH, TEXAS — During a break from an international gathering of air safety regulators from around the world, the head of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) made clear Thursday that his agency will move first to lift the order grounding Boeing’s 737 MAX. While he steered clear of specifying a timetable, his comments suggested such clearance could come as early as late June.
“When we get to the point where we can lift this order, we will do it alone,” said Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell, explaining that because the U.S. certified the original design, it must be first to certify the Boeing software fix for the flight-control system that went awry on the fatal Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines flights.
Safety regulators elsewhere will make their own decisions after looking at the FAA’s data, he said. Some will accept it, while “other countries have already decided they will not only review our work but look at some other things of interest to them.”
Relations between some foreign aviation-safety agencies and the FAA were strained by two MAX crashes in five months, the FAA’s slowness to ground the planes and subsequent questions about the rigor and independence of the agency’s certification process.
“There will be some kind of lag,” he said. “Every country has their own process. They never just blindly accept what we do.”
Nicholas Robinson, the director general of civil aviation at Transport Canada, said in a conference call Thursday night that his agency is already working on its review of the MAX design changes but has no time frame in mind on completion. He said the agency is still awaiting some information from Boeing and the FAA.
“We’ll be done when we feel comfortable,” Robinson said.
Robinson said it’s possible that Transport Canada will require simulator training for the MAX changes. He said the Canadian authorities continue to work collaboratively with the FAA.
“We have full confidence in the FAA and the processes they have in place,” Robinson said.
Ali Bahrami, the FAA’s head of aviation safety, said some countries are seeking more detail on the basis of the assumptions that go into the FAA’s system safety analysis.
Elwell said the FAA must finish its system safety analysis of the problematic flight control system, called MCAS (Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System), and conduct a series of flight tests followed by a “robust analysis” of the data the test flights generate.
He resisted citing any timeline for this work, saying that “the safety of the 737 MAX, that’s my only target.”
However, he also said that once Boeing submits its finalized software update, “we generally think our work should take about three to four weeks.”
Boeing is expected to submit its final software fix within days. The manufacturer said last week its update was completed, and it was expected to be submitted by now. So this suggests that if no further delays happen, it’s possible the FAA could give clearance to fly by the end of June.
The MAX operators in the U.S. — American, Southwest and United — would then need some time to install the update on their grounded aircraft and to do mandated training with all their 737 pilots before putting the MAX back in passenger service as early as late August.
Elwell warned that if FAA technical specialists find issues with Boeing’s fixes, that could cause more delay.
Separately, a technical advisory board consisting of FAA and NASA specialists who are not working directly on the project will independently review the FAA’s certification of the MCAS fix and “if they find something they want us to look closer at, we’ll do it,” Elwell said.
Elwell insisted that “the public can trust that the FAA will not let the 737 MAX fly again in the U.S. until it is safe to do so.”
He said his agency is dedicated to making the U.S. “the safest possible airspace in the world” and pointed to the safety record of the past two decades: 90 million flights by U.S. registered airliners, carrying 7 billion passengers, with just a single fatality, after an engine blowout broke a passenger window on a Southwest Airlines jet last fall.
“Aviation is still the safest mode of transportation on the planet,” Elwell said. “Once the 737 MAX is safely flying again, it might take some time, but I think the public will become comfortable.”
In interviews Thursday, Elwell reiterated his view expressed in congressional hearings that once the accident investigations in Indonesia and Ethiopia are complete, the cause of the two accidents will be revealed as “a chain of events” and that “the procedures the pilots did or didn’t do” as well as the maintenance of the aircraft will have to be scrutinized.
Elwell’s comment about potential maintenance issues is likely a reference to the Lion Air accident. In the two flights of that same jet immediately prior to the crash last October, the sensor that triggered MCAS gave false signals — one sensor was replaced — and caused severe flight-control problems, though the plane was still cleared to fly.
However, Elwell said Boeing’s MCAS flight-control software is “the issue that links these two horrific accidents.”
“We are going to mitigate that,” he said.
Elwell said after the meeting of regulators from 33 nations ended that the gathering had been “comprehensive and constructive.”
“When we broke, there was a great buzz” among the delegates, said Elwell. “I definitely got the impression that what they had heard was extremely helpful to them.”
Seattle Times reporter Mike Baker contributed to this report.
This story was updated to clarify the description of FAA acting administrator Elwell’s comments on timing for a 737 MAX clearance.