Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Aviation Safety Agency, in 2018. (Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg file)

Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Aviation Safety Agency, in 2018. (Yuriko Nakao/Bloomberg file)

Boeing Max judged safe to fly by Europe’s aviation regulator

A synthetic sensor to aid pilots when the mechanical angle-of-attack sensors fail is still two years out.

By Siddharth Philip / Bloomberg

Europe’s top aviation regulator said he’s satisfied that changes to Boeing’s 737 Max have made the plane safe enough to return to the region’s skies before 2020 is out, even as a further upgrade his agency demanded won’t be ready for up to two years.

After test flights conducted in September, EASA is performing final document reviews ahead of a draft airworthiness directive it expects to issue next month, said Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

That will be followed by four weeks of public comment, while the development of a so-called synthetic sensor to add redundancy will take 20 to 24 months, he said. The software-based solution will be required on the larger Max 10 variant before its debut targeted for 2022, and retrofitted onto other versions.

“Our analysis is showing that this is safe, and the level of safety reached is high enough for us,” Ky said in an interview. “What we discussed with Boeing is the fact that with the third sensor, we could reach even higher safety levels.”

The comments mark the firmest endorsement yet from a major regulator of Boeing’s goal to return its beleaguered workhorse to service by year-end, following numerous delays and setbacks. The Max, the latest version of the venerable 737 narrow-body, was grounded in March 2019 in the wake of two accidents that took 346 lives, setting into motion a crisis that’s cost Boeing billions of dollars and then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg his job.

While the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing’s main certification body, is further along in its review, it has held back from making predictions about the timing. FAA chief Steve Dickson flew the Max late last month and said he was “very comfortable,” but the process wasn’t complete.

Boeing shares advanced as much as 2.4% in pre-market U.S. trading. Through Thursday, they had lost half their value this year.

A spokeswoman for the Chicago-based company declined to comment.

EASA’s views also carry outsize weight in light of flaws in the original certification process that dented the U.S. regulator’s once-sterling reputation.

Ky said the synthetic sensor would simplify the job of pilots when one or both of the mechanical angle-of-attack sensors on the Max fails. The device, which monitors whether a plane is pointed up or down relative to the oncoming air, malfunctioned in both crashes — the first off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018 and the second one, five months later, in Ethiopia.

“We think that it is overall a good development which will increase the level of safety,” Ky said. “It’s not available now and it will be available at the same time as the Max 10 is expected to be certified.”

The Max episode strained the rapport between the FAA and global aviation authorities including EASA which acted faster to bench the jet and have made demands that go beyond U.S. requirements to clear its return. Ky said the relationship between the European agency, home regulator to Boeing rival Airbus SE, and its U.S. counterpart needs to be rebuilt in a way that enhances safety while not slowing down progress.

“For the FAA, the Max accident has been a tragedy,” he said. “In terms of the way in which they perceive their own roles, the way they were attacked by different stakeholders in the U.S., the way they have been criticized, it must have been extremely difficult.”

The FAA’s relationship with Boeing has also shifted, after the planemaker was accused of hiding changes that magnified the differences between the Max and earlier 737 models in order to reduce costs and minimize training requirements.

“At the end of the day,” Ky said, “we have a lot of respect for the technical expertise at the FAA, we have a lot of respect for our colleagues and I’d like to believe it is the same on their side. That is the real important foundation for the relationship to grow again, it has to be based on respect.”

Another question mark for the Max is China, where aircraft demand surged prior to this year’s coronavirus pandemic. China has participated in some of the Max reviews but hasn’t been involved in the flight testing that includes regulators from Canada and Brazil along with the FAA and EASA, Ky said. “I honestly don’t know where they are” with their evaluation, he said.

While Ky’s comments are positive for Boeing and suppliers like Safran and Spririt AeroSysems Holdings, the airframer “still has a mammoth task on its hands,” said Jeremy Bragg, an analyst at Redburn.

In addition to returning the aircraft to service, Boeing must also unwind inventories of about 450 Max jets that have been built but are awaiting delivery to customers, he said. “This must be achieved against a backdrop of very weak underlying demand, due to Covid-19, which will almost inevitably result in very weak pricing on the Max for the next few years.”

As the Max saga winds down, EASA is working with other regulators to apply the lessons learned to future certifications. One area has to do with evaluating derivative models like the Max that bolt modern technology onto older platforms. The challenge is finding the right balance and making sure pilots have the knowledge they need to fly the planes safely, he said.

One coming derivative is Boeing’s 777X, the next version of its 25-year-old wide-body which will have folding wings. Like many Boeing planes, it has two angle-of-attack sensors (Airbus jets have three or more). When discussing the Max, Ky said that the important question when one of two AOA sensors fails was its impact on the safety of the plane.

While the 777X doesn’t feature the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that played a role in the Max crashes, Ky said EASA will closely study the new 777’s flight control systems and analyze any potential points of failure as part of its review.

As to whether this would slow the European approval process for the wide-body: “It depends a lot on whether Boeing is able to give us the right solutions and the right analysis on the risk assessment,” he said. “There may be other problems; we are really looking into this new aircraft and we are making sure that ours and Boeing’s safety assessment is done properly and doesn’t leave any questions unanswered.”

Talk to us

More in Herald Business Journal

The Boeing factory at Paine Field in Everett. (Boeing Co.)
Could Everett become Boeing’s next jetliner headquarters?

The company is considering selling the Commercial Airplanes division offices at Longacres in Renton.

FILE - An American Airlines Boeing 737-823 lands at Miami International Airport, Monday, July 27, 2020, in Miami.American Airlines said Tuesday, Aug. 25 that it will furlough or lay off 19,000 employees in October as it struggles with a sharp downturn in travel because of the pandemic. Flight attendants will bear the heaviest cuts, with 8,100 losing their jobs.  (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, File)
American plans flights with Boeing 737 Max by year-end

Customers can see on American’s website the type of plane for any flight if they know where to click.

Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Aviation Safety Agency, in Amsterdam on Nov. 27, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Yuriko Nakao.
Boeing Max judged safe to fly by Europe’s aviation regulator

A synthetic sensor to aid pilots when the mechanical angle-of-attack sensors fail is still two years out.

Cop turned pinup model in Gold Bar charged with $67K fraud

Brenda Cavoretto was injured when a dead body fell on her in 2012. She’s accused of overselling its lasting impact.

Washington unemployment rate drops to 7.8%

Most job growth occurred in leisure and hospitality, construction and other services.

Premera Blue Cross will eliminate hundreds of jobs as it seeks to cut costs sparked by the current economic downturn. (Submitted photo)
Mountlake Terrace-based health insurer Premera cuts 285 jobs

The layoff at Premera Blue Cross, prompted by the economic downturn, represents about 8.3% of its workforce.

FILE - In this Feb. 8, 2018, file photo, the logo for Twitter is displayed above a trading post on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.  Twitter is imposing new rules, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020,  ahead of the U.S. presidential election, prohibiting people,  including candidates, from claiming an election win before it is called by either state election officials or two authoritative, national news outlets. (AP Photo/Richard Drew, File)
Twitter to pay $100,000 over Washington campaign violations

The company failed to maintain records related to ads that ran from 2012 through 2019.

FILE  - In this Sept. 30, 2020, file photo, a Boeing 737 MAX jet, piloted by Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) chief Steve Dickson, prepares to land at Boeing Field following a test flight in Seattle. Boeing says the pandemic will reduce demand for new planes for the next decade, long after experts expect a vaccine for COVID-19. The company updated its forecast of the airplane market on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. It remains upbeat about long-term prospects driven by increasing air travel in Asia. Boeing, which along with Europe’s Airbus dominates the aircraft-building industry, has seen orders and deliveries of new planes crumble this year. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson, File)
Boeing’s struggles continue: No jetliner sales in September

The company has suffered 448 cancellations for the Max and dropped another 602 orders from its backlog.

Valdis Dombrovskis, Vice-President of the EU Commission, speaks at a press conference in Berlin, Germany, following the informal talks of the EU Trade Ministers on Monday, Sept. 21, 2020.  (Bernd von Jutrczenka/Pool via AP)
Rule: EU can impose $4 billion in tariffs over Boeing support

Tax breaks for Boeing from Washington state were deemed to have unfairly harmed certain Airbus jets.

Kellie Shanahan loads Jacob McGovern's vehicle with his class tool bag at Meadowdale High School in Lynnwood on October 1, 2020.  (Kevin Clark / The Herald)
How do you teach auto shop remotely? Edmonds class finds out

For some local high school students, auto shop is the thing that keeps them from dropping out.

Newly certified teacher Shana Brown assists a student with a Zoom meeting, while overseeing a class of seven students, in the former warehouse space at Malicious Women Candles on Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2020 in Snohomish, Washington. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
For some Snohomish County kids, a warehouse is a schoolhouse

Employers made space for students to attend virtual classes on-site. But at least one learning pod had to shut down.

FILE - In this  July 8, 2009, file photo, a worker dries a car at Seattle's famous Elephant car wash, near the Space Needle in Seattle. Seattle's iconic pink elephant sign soon will have a new home. The Seattle Times reports the Elephant Car Wash on Battery Street near Denny Way will close permanently, the company announced in a news release Thursday, Oct. 8, 2020. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)
Seattle’s Elephant Car Wash to shutter, pink sign to be saved

Rumors have swirled surrounding a demolition permit for the site was filed Oct. 7.