By Andy Pasztor 
 

Boeing Co. and some of its airline customers got an immediate boost from Wednesday's ungrounding of 737 MAX jets across Europe, but the move also portends more-stringent safety reviews of future U.S. aircraft by the region's aviation regulator.

The long-awaited decision formally allowing the resumption of commercial 737 MAX operations in Europe followed pledges from the head of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency to maintain greater independence from the U.S. in certifying Boeing's long-range 777X and other new aircraft models.

As part of that tougher stance, Patrick Ky, EASA's executive director, emphasized that permitting 737 MAX flights was based on the agency's assessment "carried out in full independence of Boeing or the Federal Aviation Administration."

Mr. Ky had previously endorsed the hardware, software and pilot-training fixes affecting the MAX fleet, which were devised and tested with European collaboration. But on Wednesday and the days leading up to the announcement, Mr. Ky repeatedly emphasized that EASA performed its own tests and analyses-and would continue to follow the same pattern for other aircraft types in the future.

The agency reassessed 737 MAX systems beyond the automated flight-control feature that caused two crashes and took 346 lives before the planes were grounded world-wide in March 2019. The FAA lifted its grounding order in November and Canadian regulators followed earlier this month. Boeing expects the 737 MAX fleet to be flying in every region by the summer.

Looking ahead to certifying other models, though, Mr. Ky has publicly laid out new procedures and hurdles. He has promised European lawmakers that his agency will rely less on FAA expertise or U.S. safety assessments--and conduct more of its own independent analyses--before signing off on future aircraft.

That's a break from past practice and, according to industry officials, has contributed to the delay in introduction of the 777X that Boeing announced Wednesday. EASA's tougher scrutiny also is expected to apply to airliners from other manufacturers outside Europe, as well as business jets built in the U.S.

Before the 737 MAX crisis, both EASA and the FAA were jointly pursuing a different course. They focused on forging ways to increase reliance on each other's safety approvals, in order to reduce workload and avoid duplication. At annual safety conferences, much of the discussion centered around further reducing the number of aircraft systems or features that would require detailed checking and vetting by both agencies.

That no longer is a European priority. In testimony to European lawmakers on Monday, Mr. Ky didn't single out the 777X. But his comments about independent European safety verification of future models pointedly revealed the extent of the public divide that has separated air-safety regulators on opposite sides of the Atlantic.

FAA chief Steve Dickson has said that international efforts to eliminate 737 MAX safety problems ended up improving coordination between international regulators and, in some ways, enhanced trust among them. In the process, he also has disputed widespread assertions by industry officials, foreign regulators and outside safety experts that the FAA's global reputation for safety leadership has eroded.

But Mr. Dickson, who has told associates he wants to remain in his job under the Biden administration, also has talked about the importance of humility in some of his recent media and industry appearances. It is important to recognize that "no one individual, no one organization, can know everything all the time," he told a virtual industry gathering late last year, promising to work closely with foreign counterparts.

Seeking to reassure a committee of the European Parliament about EASA's independence in the wake of the 737 MAX tragedies, Mr. Ky on Monday testified that his agency was committed to enhanced oversight of new models. After years of increased reliance on FAA oversight of Boeing's evolving technical and design changes, Mr. Ky said EASA plans to step up its own engineering reviews. The agency also intends to shift more attention and resources to understand so-called "human factors" issues, which explain pilot interactions with automated systems and predict how swiftly average pilots will respond to cockpit emergencies. Boeing has acknowledged its mistaken assumptions about how pilot reaction time played a major role in the 737 MAX's faulty design.

In addition, after months of discussion Mr. Ky's team persuaded Boeing and the FAA's leadership to work with EASA, once the MAX fleet returns to European skies, to add an extra computerized safety system designed for more redundancy to help pilots determine airspeed and other flight characteristics.

 

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

January 27, 2021 17:43 ET (22:43 GMT)

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