A Boeing 737 MAX 8 sits outside the hangar during a media tour of the Boeing 737 MAX at the Boeing plant in Renton, Washington

US air regulator to approve return of Boeing 737 MAX jet

Image credit: Reuters

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to approve the return of Boeing’s 737 MAX to service as soon as late June, with representatives of the US air regulator informing members of the United Nations’ aviation agency in a private briefing on Thursday.

If the target is achieved, this means that US airlines would probably not have to greatly extend costly cancellations of 737 MAX jets they have already put in place for the peak summer flying season. However, the FAA representatives warned there was no firm timetable to get the planes back in the air.

American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have suspended 737 MAX flights into July and August this year. These suspensions follow after the FAA grounded Boeing’s best-selling jet in March 2019 following two crashes in the space of five months that together killed 346 people.

On Thursday 23 May, FAA and Boeing officials privately briefed members of the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) governing council in Montreal on the 737 MAX.

This briefing took place the same day that the FAA’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, met with international air regulators for eight hours in Fort Worth, Texas.

Laying out a potential schedule for getting the 737 MAX back in the air in the United States goes further than the FAA’s public statements so far.

Elwell, however, declined to answer questions about the private ICAO briefing. He said: “the last thing I want is to put a date out there and then to have anybody, either the FAA, or you or the public drive to the date instead of the end result or the process.”

The path to getting the 737 MAX back in the air outside the United States remains even more uncertain. On Wednesday 22 May, Canada and Europe said they would bring back the grounded aircraft on their own terms, rather than the FAA’s.

Shares in Boeing, the world’s largest plane maker, pared earlier losses on Thursday to close down 0.6 per cent at $350.55 (£275). Since the second crash, of an Ethiopian Airlines jet in March this year, stock has fallen about 17 per cent, wiping about $40bn (£31.5bn) off its market value.

The FAA has said it will not reverse its decision to ground the plane until it sees the findings of a multi-agency review of Boeing’s plan to fix software on the 737 MAX that the plane maker has described as a common link in the two crashes.

Last week, Boeing said the company had completed an update to the software known as manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS).

This update would stop erroneous data from triggering an anti-stall system that automatically turned down the noses of the two planes that crashed, despite pilot efforts to prevent it from doing so.

Chaz Bickers, communications director for Boeing, said: “Once we have addressed the information requests from the FAA, we will be ready to schedule a certification test flight and submit final certification documentation.”

According to officials from the three US airlines that operate the 737 MAX, even after the FAA lifts its ban on 737 MAX flights, airlines will have to spend about 100 and 150 hours getting each aircraft ready to fly again after being put in storage.

Furthermore, the airline officials stated that Boeing engineers will have to train pilots on the new software, which will inevitably take time.

Boeing, however, has said that simulator training is not necessary for the 737 MAX. According to pilot unions, the company is recommending a mandatory computer-based course that explains MCAS and could be completed at a pilot’s home in about an hour.

Elwell said on Thursday that “no individual country stood up and said we need to have sim (simulator) training,” with the FAA yet to decide on what type of pilot training will be required.

Furthermore, the US air regulator said that each airline will be responsible for developing its own training plan once it has laid down guidelines.

Simulator training remains a “possible option” for Canadian Boeing 737 MAX pilots, but it is too early to say whether it would be mandatory, a Transport Canada official said after the meeting in Fort Worth.

“It would be premature not seeing what Boeing has fully proposed yet to determine if simulator training will in fact be included,” said Nicholas Robinson, the regulator’s director general of civil aviation.

If the FAA hits its target of approving the 737 MAX to fly by the end of June, airlines may still have to adjust their schedules for the busy summer travel season.

United Airlines has removed the MAX from its flight schedule through to 3 July, Southwest until 5 August and American until 19 August.

For Southwest and American, that has meant more than 100 daily flight cancellations during the summer travel season. However, both have said they will start using the aircraft as spares if they are ready to fly before those dates.

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