By Dominic Gates / The Seattle Times
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) could clear Boeing’s 737 MAX to fly again by late next month or early June, according to a person familiar with the safety agency’s latest thinking.
If the FAA gives the green light that soon — much more quickly than many analysts have predicted — airlines would still need weeks to get their planes ready and their pilots trained. But the timetable, which assumes no unforeseen developments, means U.S. carriers could have the MAX flying passengers again by early August.
That anticipated fast-track timeline was confirmed by a second person close to the discussions.
And Steve Udvar-Hazy, executive chairman of Air Lease Corp. and a leading figure in the aviation world, said he has heard a similar tentative schedule in conversations with Boeing.
The FAA has called a crucial meeting of the heads of civil-aviation authorities from around the world for May 23, where the U.S. regulatory agency is expected to outline its finalized safety analysis in an attempt to foster international consensus.
Unless some new issues are discovered, the FAA anticipates telling the assembled foreign regulators that it’s “in a position to clear the aircraft for service sometime in the near vicinity of that meeting,” potentially as early as a week later, said the person familiar with FAA’s latest thinking.
Udvar-Hazy, who talked with Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Kevin McAllister on Friday, said Boeing has target dates but nothing firm yet. To get the international consensus Boeing would like, he said, the FAA needs to convince the other regulators that it has done everything needed to validate the MAX’s safety.
“That’s tough,” he said “The burden will be on the FAA and Boeing to demonstrate by May 23 that they have everything under control.”
Getting approval for the MAX to fly by early June would be faster than many analysts have estimated. After Boeing’s earnings teleconference Thursday, Vertical Research analyst Rob Stallard told investors that a six-month grounding seemed likely.
The FAA clearance would certify a software fix Boeing has devised for the new flight-control system on the MAX — known as Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) — that’s been implicated in the two recent fatal crashes that killed 346 people. Simultaneously, the agency will mandate pilot training to fully brief flight crews on the updated system and on how to deal with any potential failures.
The planes have been grounded worldwide since March 13. Swift progress will be needed between now and the May 23 meeting.
On April 17, Boeing Chairman and Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg said the company had completed 135 test flights with the new software installed, adding that the next flight would be the MCAS certification flight.
That flight — in which FAA test pilots put the plane through its paces and test various failure modes and extreme flight conditions — still hasn’t happened, but Udvar-Hazy said Boeing hopes to fly it sometime next week.
The person familiar with the FAA’s thinking said that once that’s completed, “there’s some optimism that the certification process can then happen in a fairly timely manner.”
While Boeing and the FAA believe that a worldwide consensus among aviation authorities would substantially bolster public confidence in the safety of the MAX, they may not wait long if international agreement is too slow to emerge.
The person familiar with the FAA’s view said that once the certification process has been checked and FAA technical staff are convinced the plane is now safe, it will be difficult to justify keeping it grounded because of international political considerations.
“With 250 flights a day being canceled (in the U.S.) and the stranded capital of planes parked all over the West, there’s a recognition that every day has an economic cost,” the person said.
For the U.S. MAX operators — American, Southwest and United — FAA approval will be the trigger to begin the time-consuming logistics required before commercial flights can resume.
The airlines must first install the software update on all their MAXs.
American Airlines captain Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the airline’s pilot union, the Allied Pilots Association (APA), said Boeing has told him that it will take about a week to do that for the 24 MAXs in American’s fleet.
Then planes that have been stored for weeks, many of them in desert airfields, will have to undergo routine maintenance before flying, including oiling and running up the engines, rotating the wheels, and cycling the hydraulic systems, which could take another week.
The next step, completing the pilot training, will take much longer, given the complexity of pilot schedules.
Tajer said American will almost certainly put all of its more than 4,000 Boeing 737 pilots through the additional training before it allows any of them to fly a MAX. American has drafted a supplemental training document about MCAS more than 20 pages long, he said.
The airline would not want some crews trained and others not, he said. That’s because if at the last minute before a flight, an older 737 model had to be swapped out for a MAX due to some maintenance problem, the airline would need the assigned crew trained and ready to go.
While tracking that pilot training, the airlines will also have to update their flight and maintenance manuals.
Only after all that is done will they be able to look at their route networks and schedules and begin to open up seats on MAXs in their reservation systems.
Southwest Airlines spokeswoman Brandy King said that “as of now, incorporating the MAX into our published schedule would not happen before Aug. 5.”
“We have revised our schedule through the summer and will limit the MAX to be utilized as spares if all steps are completed prior to Aug. 5,” she said.
American has extended its cancellations for the MAX through Aug. 19. On Friday, American Airlines chief Doug Parker said in a quarterly earnings teleconference that, assuming its planes are back in service then, the company estimates the MAX grounding will have cost the airline $350 million.
Tajer said his union will push for a robust training program mandated for pilots worldwide, and it hopes that the process can be deliberate and transparent enough to create a consensus across the globe that the mandated safety measures are adequate.
“The pilot community is global. We don’t expect to be flying this plane alone,” he said. “I don’t want to be sitting in an interview discussing why we are flying the MAX and pilots worldwide are not.”
“We have to get it done right,” Tajer said.