The grounding of Boeing 737 Max aircraft highlighted doubts about the effectiveness of US Federal Aviation Administration oversight. The FAA’s end of the Max flight ban on 18 November leaves families of Max crash victims unsatisfied and Congress trying to pass aircraft certification reform.
It remains to be seen if US airlines can convince the flying public that it is safe to fly on 737 Max jets.
FAA administrator Steve Dickson on 18 November lifted the agency’s order barring US airlines from operating the Max aircraft after 20 months of airlines and Boeing storing the unused aircraft. The US Senate confirmed Dickson based on his promise to be strict with Boeing while testing and recertificating Max aircraft. The administrator even flew a Max during a safety test in September.
“I am 100% comfortable with my family flying on [the Max],” Dickson stated on 18 November. “The travelling public deserves and expects nothing less.”
Boeing and the FAA still have soul-searching to do while US airlines work with regulators on the steps needed to return their Max fleets to service.
Two crashes of Max aircraft led to the deaths of 346 people. The second crash on an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March 2019 occurred five months after the first crash of a Max operated by Lion Air. The FAA did not ground Max aircraft until after Canada decided to take that step following the Ethiopian crash, which contributed to doubts in Congress and the aviation community about whether the agency was too lenient in its oversight of Boeing.
Families of victims who died in the Ethiopian crash of a 737 Max “reacted with sheer disappointment and renewed grief” in an 18 November statement responding to the FAA ungrounding of the Boeing aircraft. These relatives of the Ethiopian Max crash accuse Boeing and the FAA of not being transparent enough in sharing documents related to the recertification process for Max aircraft. They are represented by Clifford Law Offices and have lawsuits pending against Boeing in Chicago federal district court.
The FAA pledge that Max aircraft are safe “does not work anymore”, said a statement from Paul Njoroge, whose wife, three children and mother-in-law died in the Ethiopian crash.
“The aggressive secrecy of the FAA means we cannot believe the Boeing 737 MAX is safe,” Njoroge said. “We have repeatedly asked for the technical descriptions of the alleged fixes, the test protocols and results and the safety assessments. But the FAA won’t release them, and Boeing won’t consent to their release.”
Months of House and Senate investigations also revealed mistakes made by both Boeing and the FAA during the certification process. A report summarising the findings of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee stated on 16 September that a “culture of concealment” contributed to the two fatal crashes.
“They were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA,” according to the House report.
The House on 17 November passed a bill created with the findings of the committee’s investigation that would require an expert panel to evaluate and recommend improvements for Boeing’s safety culture. Proposed safety fixes for the FAA in the House bill include a requirement for companies to share risk assessments with regulators and to create risk calculations that would reflect the realistic ability of pilots to respond during an incident.
The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation on 18 November voted to advance a bill to amend the FAA certification process including a proposal for more accurate risk assessment of potential pilot responses to cockpit alerts. The bill entitled the Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act of 2020 would move the FAA “back to a more direct supervisory role and requires more robust product analysis from the manufacturers”, the committee ranking member Maria Cantwell of Washington said in a statement.
“It also requires the FAA to upgrade and retain technical expertise to do proper oversight and protects company engineers and whistleblowers who see flaws early in the design process,” Cantwell said.
NEW PILOT TRAINING
Airline pilots who fly the recertificated Max must first complete new training related to the narrowbody’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). These automated flight controls contributed to the two fatal crashes because they responded to faulty data from a single sensor and trimmed the nose down. Boeing initially defended its design, insisting pilots could disable MCAS by following established procedures to address a runaway stabiliser.
The airframer said in a statement that it will begin MCAS-related updates now that the FAA has recertificated the jet. Boeing chief executive David Calhoun said in an 18 November note to employees that “we have more work ahead of us as we begin to again deliver 737s and return the airplane to service worldwide, which will continue to be paced by the timing of other global regulators”.
While the ability for the House and Senate to conference bills remains in question the FAA clearly faces pressure for aircraft certification reform. The Max crashes and grounding have likewise “reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity,” Calhoun said.
Boeing has slashed the number of stored 737 Max jets it expects to deliver in 2021 as airlines seek to conserve cash during the pandemic and as the airframer must rebuild the flying public’s trust in Max aircraft safety.
The airframer stockpiled 450 Max jets and is eager to reduce the costs of storage by delivering them to airlines, but Boeing expects that in 2021 it will deliver about half of those stockpiled jets. It intends to deliver the “majority” of the remaining jets in 2022. During the pandemic airlines have also cancelled orders for hundreds of Max jets.
This analysis was written by Tom Risen, part of Cirium’s North American reporting team.