The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has briefed the US operators of the Boeing 737 MAX on April 12 on the updates that should eventually result in the re-certification of the type. Delegates from American Airlines, United Airlines, and Southwest Airlines and from unions attended the meeting in Washington DC.
In a three-hour meeting, acting administrator Dan Elwell discussed three topics with airline representatives and pilots on the MAX issues. First, the preliminary reports on Lion Air JT610 and Ethiopian Airlines ET302 were reviewed to determine what is known right now about the cause of the two accidents.
So far, the focus has been on the failure of the MAX’ unique Maneuvering Characteristic Augmentation System (MCAS) that with erroneous Angle-of-Attack input on multiple occasions and despite pilots trying to resist it commanded the two aircraft into their fatal dives. This was exacerbated by what Boeing thinks has been stabilizer runway that the pilots might have been able to overcome but on JT610 and ET302 were unsuccessful to do so. The reason for this needs more investigation.
Boeing is finalizing the software update for the MCAS that should prevent the system from taking over control from the pilots as it seems to have done on the two fatal flights. As reported before, the update includes building-in redundancy by basing MCAS’ decisions on input from not just one but both angle-of-attack sensors, no activation when both disagree by more than 5.5 degrees with flaps retracted, providing an AOA disagree alert light in the cockpit as standard and probably the most important change: MCAS will activate only once. The system also won’t command to more stabilizer input that can be encountered by the crew when pulling pack on the column, always giving them the authority to override the system.
Boeing has also suggested updating its (limited) MAX training procedures, another major topic discussed in Washington as it includes the level of training that pilots need to do before they are qualified to fly the MAX.
Boeing 737 MAX 8. (Boeing)
The FAA press release on the meeting doesn’t say what airlines think of the updates that have been suggested so far and which has been flight tested on the MAX 7 prototype as well as other aircraft on 96 sorties and 159 flight hours, as Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg said on Thursday.
However, in a statement following the meeting, the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) said: “We have had numerous questions posed to SWAPA regarding Ethiopian Flight 302. These questions and the issues involved will no doubt have to be navigated, discussed, and debated. The first and most important goal of all of the entire process should be to protect the lives of our passengers and the traveling public in general.”
‘Review ODA decision’
SWAPA thinks the double MAX tragedies have a deeper implication on how rule makers as the FAA oversee the certification of new airliners. “Congress will have to debate their 2004 decision where they granted the FAA authority to expand the role of aircraft manufacturers via an “Organization Designation Authorization” (ODA), delegating much of the FAA’s regulatory oversight to the companies it oversees. Now the ODA concept may be too ingrained to reverse and further complicated because of the FAA’s budget and lack of available and qualified personnel.” ODA responsibilities are part of a number of reviews that have followed the MAX incidents.
While the FAA seems to be looking for support from other agencies to review the MAX updates before the type can re-enter service and seems to be targeting a decision in June, the US agency could be too optimistic about this. Executive Director Patrick Ky of Europe’s EASA made it clear in a session with the EU’s transport committee last month that EASA will have determined on its own that the MAX is safe again to fly before it approves any update. EASA and other regulatory agencies will want full certainty that a quick fix for the MAX is a good fix.
In an interesting remark in the SWAPA statement, the union has been questioning the policy of on airline being too dependent on a single type of aircraft as Southwest is on the 737: “The advantages and disadvantages of an airline having a single fleet and having aircraft from only one manufacturer are already being discussed in the media, on Wall Street, by the aviation industry, and by SWAPA members. It is a very complex issue, both financially and safety-wise.”
Active as a journalist since 1987, with a background in newspapers, magazines, and a regional news station, Richard has been covering commercial aviation on a freelance basis since late 2016.
In 2022, he has gone full-time freelance. Richard has been contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He is also writing for Airliner World and Aviation News and until July 1 2023 in a part-time role with Dutch website and magazine Luchtvaartnieuws. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.