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April 23, 2024
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UPDATE Oct 4 – The Boeing MAX 7 risks not being certified this year, because Boeing has submitted documents to the FAA that are wholly inadequate. This scoop by The Seattle Times on September 29 causes astonishment and surprise. Or maybe not, because with the MAX, new surprises pop up every time. Insight – Buying time for the Boeing MAX 7 and 10.

The Seattle Times has seen a letter from the FAA to Boeing dated September 19, in which a high-ranking safety director of the regulatory agency told Boeing that it was late with submitting documents for the so-called System Safety Assessment (SSA). The airframer was supposed to have submitted these documents by mid-September for the FAA to have adequate time to assess them and rule on the certification of the MAX 7 before the end of December.

Executive director of aviation safety, Lirio Liu, writes that Boeing still has to submit initial documents for six SSA’s and that of other documents only ten percent have been accepted by the FAA. Liu asks Boeing to come up with a realistic time frame for the submission of the remaining documentation.

A lot on its plate

In Boeing’s defense, you can say that the airframer has a lot on its plate, which might explain why it is struggling to meet deadlines. It had to cope with the MAX 8 and 9 recertifications, although that is already a couple of years behind. It has the 777X to look after, as regulators after the two fatal MAX accidents have completely changed their approach to certification. In the case of the 777X, they requested Boeing to redesign some flight-critical hardware and software, resulting in a delay of the first deliveries by four years until early 2025.

There were the production quality issues of the Boeing 787, which all began three years ago around mid-2019, and will only be over when the last Dreamliner in inventory has been reworked and delivered in 2024. Here too, the FAA was critical of the documentation that Boeing had submitted about how it planned to address and prevent the quality problems.

It was around spring this year that the bells started ringing about the certification timeline of the MAX 7 and 10. Boeing needed to hurry up if it wanted to meet the December 31, 2022, deadline, especially the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability act passed by Congress in December 2020. If it failed to certify the aircraft on time, the new legislation would force Boeing to introduce new surveilling and monitoring systems in the cockpit of the MAX 10 (main picture) which would mean an end to cockpit commonality between the MAX 8 and 9 and the other versions.

Initially seen as a problem that would hurt the MAX 10, it is now obvious that the MAX 7 risks the same fate. Keep in mind that the MAX 7 first flew on March 16, 2018, so before the two fatal accidents. With all flight testing complete, one would think that the documentation would have been completed and filed by now.

The MAX 7 made its first flight on March 16, 2018. (Boeing)

Lobbying Congress

Liu’s letter to Boeing makes clear that the FAA has strong doubts about Boeing meeting the deadline, for whatever internal reasons that may be. But rather than getting its documentation right on time, the OEM is gambling on another horse: lobbying Congress. President and CEO David Calhoun and Boeing Commercial Airplanes President and CEO Stan Deal have said on numerous occasions that Boeing could/would request an exemption of the new legislation if time was running out. They have been doing so since April, when Boeing pushed Congress to give it more time rather than force it to do a cockpit systems redesign that would negate any fleet commonality advantages to airlines that planned to operate different types of the MAX, most prominently Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, and Alaska Airlines.

Calhoun even pushed to the point in June that he said Boeing was willing to sacrifice the MAX 10 rather than doing the systems update. It was an answer to a hypothetical question, Stan Deal said ahead of the Farnborough Airshow. Mr. Deal was still confident Boeing would have the MAX 10 certified but might need a little more time than December 31 and ask Congress for relief. The uncertainty didn’t deter Delta Airlines from announcing a record order at the airshow for 100 MAX 10s, but the contract includes provisions to change the model to a different one if Delta isn’t happy with the situation of a cockpit redesign. On October 4, Reuters reported that FAA Administrator Billy Nolen informed Boeing that in the current timeline, the MAX 10 will receive certification no sooner than summer 2023. 

That was the MAX 10 situation. Boeing now needs to seek relief in Congress for the MAX 7 too. According to The Seattle Times, lobby work is in full swing to give Boeing the extra time it needs under current certification legislation. An amendment of the Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability act is being prepared to change the deadline to September 30, 2024. That’s two years from today, which would seem more than adequate to buy Boeing time to get its documentation done and for the FAA to assess it. But getting the amendment passed is not a foregone conclusion, as there is opposition to giving Boeing extra time.

Buying extra time to solve the MAX 7 and -10 issues would be good news for Boeing, but many of its customers will not be happy at all. Southwest Airlines had hoped to take delivery of thirty MAX 7s this year but decided in April and again in July to push out some to 2023 while at the same time swapping -7s for MAX 8s. It still has no visibility on when to expect the first of the smallest MAX versions.

As for MAX 10 customers, United is counting on its first deliveries in 2023. Delta Airlines has more time until 2025, while Qatar Airways has disclosed the year of delivery but will like to have them as soon as possible. That also goes for WestJet, which announced an order for 42 MAX 10s on Thursday but didn’t say when the first is expected to join the airline. Alaska Airlines has some time until early 2024 when the first of sixty -10s are due. So most airlines seem to have some flexibility when it comes to the first MAX 10 deliveries, but it will depend on what will be in the cockpit if they remain interested.      

author avatar
Richard Schuurman
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. Richard is contributing to AirInsight since December 2018. He also writes for Airliner World, Aviation News, Piloot & Vliegtuig, and Luchtvaartnieuws Magazine. Twitter: @rschuur_aero.

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