FAA won’t recertify 737 MAX until 2020, administrator says

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has no timetable for recertifying the troubled Boeing 737 MAX jetliner for flight as it carefully studies Boeing Co.’s (NYSE: BA) fixes to the plane’s flight control software and new pilot training procedures, Administrator Stephen Dickson told a House panel Wednesday. 

But in an interview on CNBC before the hearing, he acknowledged regulators won’t likely approve the 737 MAX for return to service until 2020, brushing back expectations from Boeing and airline industry officials that the plane would be recertified late this year.

“This process is not guided by a calendar or schedule. Safety is the driving consideration,” Dickson testified Dec. 11 before the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee. The FAA will “adhere to a data-driven, methodical analysis, review and validation of the modified flight control systems and pilot training required to safely return the 737 MAX to commercial service. I have directed FAA employees to take whatever time is needed to do that work.”

Congress is looking into the certification process and the relationship between aviation regulators and airframers such as Boeing following the deadly crashes of two 737 MAX planes operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines that led to the plane’s grounding in March. Chairman Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., said his goal is to pass legislation “to prevent future unairworthy planes from slipping through regulatory cracks and into airline service.”

Dickson reiterated that the FAA is in complete charge of the approval process for planes manufactured since the no-fly order and has not delegated any responsibilities to Boeing, as normally occurs during airworthiness determinations. Before flight approval is granted, a certification flight test, validation of the flight control software and other milestones must be completed.

“Finally, I am not going to sign off on this aircraft until all FAA technical reviews are complete, I fly it myself using my experience as an Air Force and commercial pilot, and I am satisfied that I would put my own family on it without a second thought,” the FAA chief said.

Dickson is a former Delta Air Lines pilot and senior vice president of flight operations who took the FAA post in August. 

The FAA is also sharing information and briefing foreign aviation authorities that also will need to grant flight approval for the 737 MAX in their respective airspaces.

Airlines had anticipated starting MAX flights by March based on earlier expectations of the FAA’s work, but that timeline will now extend later into the year because it will take two or three months to adjust route schedules, bring parked planes up to proper maintenance levels and train pilots on the new software. The lost use of MAX planes and delayed deliveries cost airlines hundreds of millions of dollars. Many airlines are expected to file claims for reimbursement from Boeing.

Dickson reiterated that as planes become more automated and complex, aircraft certifications need to integrate human factors considerations throughout the design process so there is confidence that pilots can easily operate the systems.

Lawmakers also heard testimony from Edward Pierson, a former senior manager at Boeing’s 737 factory in Renton, Washington, who described concerns he raised about higher defect rates because management was “prioritizing production speed over quality and safety.” 

Boeing hiked production rates for the 737 MAX to reduce a large backlog without enough skilled mechanics, electricians and technicians, resulting in process breakdowns, incomplete paperwork and mistakes as fatigued workers raced to meet the tighter schedule, Pierson said, reprising an account he gave The New York Times earlier this week.

“The confluence of parts delays, employee fatigue, out-of-sequence work, communications breakdowns and schedule pressure led to a decline in quality,” he testified. 

Pierson, a former Navy squadron commander, said he recommended to Scott Campbell, the 737 programs vice president and general manager, that the production line be shut down until the problems could be fixed, as would be done in the Navy, and was told, “The military isn’t a profit-making organization.” 

Pierson’s complaints did not involve the automated flight control system, known as MCAS, that was blamed in the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines’ crashes, but point to the overall pressure the program was facing to fill thousands of orders for the new 737 model.

And the former Boeing engineer drew a connection between the “dysfunctional” production conditions and the MCAS, which overreacted to faulty data from a so-called “angle-of-attack” (AOA) sensor and pushed down the plane’s nose to prevent a perceived stall during takeoff, contributing to the pilots’ loss of control. As part of its corrective work, Boeing has added redundancy to the system so that the MCAS receives data from multiple sensors.

Lion Air replaced a faulty AOA sensor the day before the crash in 2018, and Pierson suggested production problems associated with the sensors could have been the cause for the faulty data that triggered the MCAS to execute a series of abrupt maneuvers that overpowered the pilots.

“No one has asked why two brand-new AOA sensors on two brand-new planes inspected, installed and tested by Boeing at the Renton plant during the summer of 2018 failed. And no one has investigated whether the hundreds of other planes manufactured during the summer of 2018 at Renton — including the currently flying 737 Next Gen airplanes and P-8 military airplanes — have faulty AOA sensors or other production quality issues,” he said.

The whistleblower said he raised this concern with the FAA as recently as Nov. 5 and urged Administrator Dickson to issue an emergency airworthiness directive to airlines and Boeing requiring them to inspect, test and, if necessary, replace similar model AOA sensors but has received no response.

“Although it is imperative to correct Boeing’s flawed MCAS software and pilot training, it is no less imperative to thoroughly evaluate why the AOA sensors provided faulty data in the first place and whether those reasons implicate Renton production more broadly. It is alarming that these sensors failed on multiple flights mere months after the airplanes were manufactured in a factory experiencing frequent wiring problems and functional test issues,” Pierson said. “Regulators simply must ask questions about the conditions of the Renton factory and Boeing must answer them candidly. The safety of the flying public depends on it.”