By Alan Levin and Mary Schlangenstein / Bloomberg
U.S. aviation regulators are increasingly convinced they don’t need to mandate new simulator training for pilots of Boeing’s 737 Max before returning the grounded jet to service, according to people familiar with the discussions.
Pilots would be required instead to take a computer-based training course they could perform at home or in a classroom, according to the people, who weren’t authorized to speak about the matter and asked not to be identified. More extensive simulator-based training for all 737 Max pilots may be required in the months after flights resume, the people said.
Such a decision would help streamline the return of the plane linked to two fatal crashes and mired in multiple investigations and spare airlines millions of dollars in costs. But it would run contrary to demands by relatives of the victims and some pilots such as Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, who crash-landed an airliner in New York’s Hudson River in 2009, and may make it harder to reassure a skeptical public of the plane’s safety.
The Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t concluded its reviews of Boeing’s proposed software changes to the plane and current thinking could change, according to the people familiar with the discussions. An FAA advisory panel, which issued a preliminary finding in April that simulator training wasn’t necessary to return the plane to service, is reviewing public comments and also hasn’t reached a final opinion.
“The FAA still hasn’t made a final decision,” said agency spokesman Lynn Lunsford. “It’s one of the many things we’re still evaluating.”
Training for Boeing’s best-selling jet has been a source of controversy since the first accident, of a Lion Air flight that had just taken off from Jakarta on Oct. 29. An Ethiopian Airlines jet crashed near Addis Ababa on March 10 under similar circumstances, leading to a worldwide grounding of the plane.
In both cases, a safety feature on the planes malfunctioned and repeatedly attempted to push the plane into a dive until pilots lost control. Known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, it operated in the background and pilots hadn’t been told it existed. After the Indonesia crash, pilot unions in the U.S. and elsewhere were furious they didn’t know about it and said withholding that information had created a safety risk.
Another point of contention was over Boeing’s 2017 decision, approved by the FAA, that airline crews flying the previous version of 737s known as Next Generation models didn’t need expensive and time-consuming simulator training before transitioning to the Max because of similarities between the two models. Lawmakers in Washington have grilled FAA officials about that decision.
An Aug. 6 letter signed by several dozen relatives of victims of the Ethiopian Airlines crash called on Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to mandate simulator training before allowing the 737 Max planes back in the sky.
“If they don’t require simulator training before the planes go back in the air, it would be a Boeing and profit-based decision and not a safety based decision,” said Michael Stumo, whose daughter, Samya, died in the Ethiopia crash.
Sullenberger testified to House lawmakers at a June 19 hearing that Max pilots should practice emergencies in a simulator so that they “will see, hear, feel, experience and understand the challenges associated with MCAS.”
Canada Transport Minister Marc Garneau on April 17 said that nation would require simulator sessions, not just computer training, before allowing the Max to return to service.
“I feel very strongly about simulators and I say that for having trained for about 16 years as an astronaut that simulators are the very best way,” Garneau said at an event in Montreal. “From our point of view, it’s not going to be a question of pulling out an iPad and spending an hour on it.”
Transport Canada, the agency overseeing aviation in that country, more recently declined to comment on what it would require.
The need for additional training following the accidents isn’t in dispute. In both cases, pilots could have saved the planes, as did the ones aboard a Lion Air flight the night before the crash when confronted with an identical malfunction. But the crews on the planes that crashed either didn’t recognize what was happening or became overwhelmed by the multiple alarms and failures that were occurring simultaneously, according to preliminary reports.
Issues that could be added to simulator training include practicing how to counteract a plane that’s trying to dive on its own, known as a runaway trim, and exercises on reacting to such complex emergencies, according to the people.
However, Boeing has developed a software change that reduces the chances of an MCAS malfunction. The company hopes to submit the package, including proposed new training, for approval by the end of September.
If the FAA is satisfied that those changes will minimize the risk of any future MCAS failures, that significantly lowers the need to show pilots how MCAS behaves in a simulator before returning the plane to service, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, the former FAA head of accident investigation who now works as a consultant.
“Definitely, the two accidents cry out for additional or enhanced training in some fashion,” Guzzetti said. “I just don’t think it needs to be simulator training right now to unground the airplane.”
The decision on what training is necessary to return the 737 Max to service has significant financial implications for airlines.
Requiring all 737 pilots in the U.S. to take extra simulator training before the plane can fly would cost an estimated $35 million, said Kit Darby, an Atlanta-based aviation consultant who specializes in pilot compensation.
Darby estimated there were 16,000 737 pilots at the three U.S. airlines flying the Max and assumed that they’d each receive roughly a half day of simulator training and preparation time. The costs could vary depending on factors such as time required for travel, expenses and whether some pilots didn’t have to take the training, he said.
Those expenses pale in comparison to the billions of dollars the grounding has already cost Boeing and airlines around the world, and the FAA says it is only considering the safety of the plane, not the costs.
“Boeing continues to work with global regulators and our airline customers as they determine training requirements,” the Chicago-based planemaker said in a statement.
Another complicating factor is that there are so few Max simulators available. American Airlines and Southwest Airlines Co. only recently received their first 737 Max simulators. Both are in the process of being installed and it will be months before training can begin.
There are multiple forms of training and other steps that can be taken to inform pilots about MCAS and the best ways to recover during a malfunction. They include bulletins, computer-based lessons, explanations in flight manuals and exercises in simulators.
There is widespread consensus that at least part of the regular simulator sessions required for airline crews on the 737 Max and possibly other models of the plane should focus on lessons learned from the crashes, said the people familiar with discussions on the matter.
Airline pilots receive so-called recurrent training as often as every six months, meaning a carrier’s entire roster of pilots would receive the new training during that period.
So far, U.S. pilot unions have not been demanding simulator training before the Max returns to service.
The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association continues to support computer-based training, but that could change once any proposed program is made public, said Jon Weaks, union president.
The union is waiting to see the FAA’s actions before it makes a final decision, Weaks said in an interview. “What we’ve seen so far, we’re OK with, but it’s all subject to change based upon future developments,” he said.
The Allied Pilots Association, which represents American’s crew members, believes simulator training is not a condition for resuming flights, but it should be done on an expedited and ongoing basis, said Dennis Tajer, a pilot and the group’s spokesman.
The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents United Airlines crews, is waiting until more information becomes known before taking a position, according to a statement.
With assistance from Bloomberg’s Benjamin Katz.