Boeing's Fixes to 737 MAX Not Likely to Get FAA Approval Until February--2nd Update

Date : 12/13/2019 @ 12:59AM
Source : Dow Jones News
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Boeing's Fixes to 737 MAX Not Likely to Get FAA Approval Until February--2nd Update

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By Andrew Tangel and Andy Pasztor 

The global grounding of Boeing Co.'s 737 MAX is bound to stretch to nearly a year as U.S. regulators chided the plane maker for its slow delivery of information and warned it against setting unrealistic expectations for the jetliner's return to service.

The Federal Aviation Administration is expected to approve fixes to a MAX flight-control system and related pilot training no sooner than February, about two months beyond what Boeing recently envisioned, according to people familiar with the matter. That means the troubled airliner might not carry passengers in the U.S. until the spring, with resumption of service in Europe and elsewhere likely coming weeks afterward.

The new hurdles came into focus Thursday with a pair of unusual statements from the FAA to congressional committees, calling out Boeing for not providing timely information and for its public push for an accelerated end to the grounding.

The friction, following months of behind-the-scenes tussles between the agency and the Chicago-based aerospace giant. culminated in a meeting Thursday between the FAA chief, Steve Dickson, and Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg.

The grounding of the MAX after a crash in Ethiopia last March, the second involving the plane in five months, is costing Boeing and its airline customers billions of dollars and disrupting airline passengers' travel plans. The latest delay is likely to ratchet up pressure on Boeing executives as they consider whether to further cut or even halt MAX production at the company's 737 factory in Renton, Wash.

The latest delay, according to industry and government officials familiar with the details, was partly prompted by indications from European and Canadian regulators that they aren't comfortable with the current package of software fixes and training revisions proposed by Boeing. As part of the FAA's strategy to generate public support for the plane's safety, U.S. officials are seeking to obtain at least a general endorsement from those regulators even if they officially clear the MAX later.

The warnings from the FAA started before Thursday's meeting in Washington, which was slated to include other senior FAA officials and Stan Deal, the new head of Boeing's commercial airplane unit. Mr. Dickson pushed back against what the agency described as a pattern of Boeing's overly optimistic projections for when the MAX would win approval to re-enter passenger service, according to an email sent to lawmakers by the FAA's legislative office and reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

"The administrator is concerned that Boeing continues to pursue a return-to-service schedule that is not realistic due to delays that have accumulated for a variety of reasons," the email said.

"More concerning, the administrator wants to directly address the perception that some of Boeing's public statements have been designed to force FAA into taking quicker action."

The administrator's message, according to the email, was to convey that the agency and manufacturer "must take the time to get this process right."

One of the people familiar with the FAA's plans said the approval could slip into March in part because of the regulator's aim to brief their international counterparts before ungrounding the U.S. MAX fleet.

"We will work with the FAA to support their requirements and their timeline as we work to safely return the Max to service in 2020," Boeing said Thursday. "Dennis Muilenburg and Stan Deal had a productive meeting today with Administrator Dickson and Deputy Administrator Elwell," the company said.

Shortly after the meeting, the FAA's legislative office sent a follow-up email to lawmakers saying Mr. Dickson told Boeing that the company's focus should be on the "quality and timeliness of data submittals for FAA review."

The email was reviewed by the Journal. The note added that the "FAA's certification requirements must be 100% complete before return to service," referring to past Boeing requests to recertify a new flight-control computer system before all required data was submitted, according to one person familiar with the agency's deliberations.

The FAA chief reiterated that he has told agency experts working on the MAX review "to take the time they need to get this right."

It is unusual for the FAA to signal its intentions and concerns about such matters to lawmakers who have been so critical of the agency's handling of the MAX crisis.

In early November, Boeing said it expected the FAA to lift its flight ban in mid-December and approve related pilot training in January, leading U.S. airlines to plan on resuming flights on the MAX in March. Following the latest developments, American Airlines Group Inc. said it would take the MAX out of its schedules through April 6.

Southwest Airlines Co. is likely to remove the MAX from passenger schedules through at least early April, a spokeswoman for the Dallas carrier's pilot union said.

The FAA issued its warnings in the wake of a number of unsuccessful Boeing proposals to speed up the ungrounding process, including a bid to persuade the agency to allow it to start delivering aircraft before all training issues had been resolved.

Southwest and Boeing said Thursday that they have reached an agreement to compensate the airline for some of the damage from the grounding. American and United Airlines Holdings Inc. have said they want to wait until they have more certainty about when the MAX will be back in service to conclude negotiations with Boeing.

Earlier on Thursday, China's aviation regulator, the first to ground the MAX after the crash in Ethiopia, said it has concerns about the reliability and security of Boeing's proposed changes to the aircraft. The Civil Aviation Administration of China has set its own requirements for the aircraft to be recertified for flight in the country, including a training program for pilots and a clear plan to avoid future incidents on the MAX.

--Alison Sider contributed to this article.

Write to Andrew Tangel at Andrew.Tangel@wsj.com and Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

December 12, 2019 19:44 ET (00:44 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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