Grounded Since March, FAA Will Give An Update On Boeing's 737 Max

Sep 23, 2019
Originally published on October 31, 2019 11:39 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The head of the Federal Aviation Administration will update aviation authorities today about Boeing's 737 Max. You'll remember regulators grounded that plane for passenger use back in March after the second of two deadly crashes. The FAA is under intense scrutiny for apparent lapses in safety oversight, and there are multiple investigations into Boeing itself focusing on Boeing's design of a faulty automated flight control system, which the company says it's trying to fix. Here's NPR's David Schaper.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: He's only been on the job for a month, but FAA administrator Stephen Dickson wasted little time jumping into the cockpit, literally. Late last week, the former military and commercial airline pilot strapped himself into a flight simulator and tested Boeing's new 737 Max software for himself. The FAA declined NPR's request to interview Dickson and would not say how well the flight control software fix performed, but he told an air traffic controllers' conference the day before that he is in no rush to get the 737 Max back into the air.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEPHEN DICKSON: The airplane's not going to fly again until I'm satisfied that it's ready to go and that I would fly and put my own family on it.

SCHAPER: How much longer might the 737 Max remain out of service? Dixon says Boeing still has at least several weeks of work to do and still has not yet officially submitted its software changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICKSON: You know, we haven't seen the final system architecture from Boeing. We're very close. And when I say system architecture, it's more than 500 pages of technical material that we're reviewing.

SCHAPER: In crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, a flight control system called MCAS repeatedly forced the planes into uncontrollable nosedives. Ever since the entire 737 Max fleet was grounded more than six months ago, Boeing has been saying it's very close to finishing its software fix for MCAS. But the company has failed to deliver it. Investigations are underway into whether Boeing cut corners and downplayed flaws when developing the Max and how the FAA conducted safety reviews of the plane. Nonetheless, Boeing's CEO Dennis Muilenberg was reassuring at a recent investors' conference.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DENNIS MUILENBERG: We are making good, solid progress on the software update to the airplane. And we are still targeting early fourth quarter for a return to service of the 737 Max.

SCHAPER: Early fourth quarter would be October. As in, next month. That appears unlikely. In fact, most of the airlines that fly the Max have pulled the planes out of their schedules through the end of the year, even if the FAA does recertify the Max. And then there's the issue of satisfying other regulators around the world, many of whom say they won't just sign off on the FAA's analysis.

PATRICK KY: We asked to have a broader review of the design of safety critical systems on the Max.

SCHAPER: That's Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, explaining why they want to do their own review and flight tests.

KY: There were obviously some things which were not working on safety critical systems. And what proves to us that there are not other areas where there would be dysfunctioning systems, as well?

SCHAPER: Canada, India and China are among those joining the Europeans in demanding their own safety reviews of the 737 Max.

TODD CURTIS: Well, it's definitely a radical departure from what usually happens.

SCHAPER: Todd Curtis is a former Boeing safety engineer and creator of the website airsafe.com. He says the FAA's once sterling reputation for safety is now tarnished.

CURTIS: It would be further damaged if after the FAA does their review that further problems are found by other authorities. So I think it's very important that Boeing and FAA get this right.

SCHAPER: A critical first step is the meeting today with the FAA's counterparts from around the world. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.