On Wednesday morning Steve Dickson, Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration, took Boeing‘s 737 MAX for a test flight. Following the successful flight Dickson repeatedly stated, “I like what I saw” from the progress, particularly in how the MCAS system was revised. But that optimism must be tempered against a few very real remaining challenges in getting the aircraft back into commercial service.
It has been a productive constructive week, and I like what I saw on the flight this morning. But we are not to the point yet where we have completed the process.– FAA Administrator Steve Dickson
This was not a publicity stunt
Dickson was adamant that his flight was not a publicity event. When explicitly asked that question he replied that it was, instead, “simply fulfillment of a commitment, a promise that I made within my first few weeks at the FAA.” But he also noted earlier in the prepared remarks that “my flight was separate from the official certification process that is still underway and still progress by the FAA.”
So if it was not a stunt and it also was not part of the formal recertification process, what was it??
Dickson also had something of an answer there:
Since I ultimately will be charged with making the decision on this aircraft, before I’m going to sign my name on the dotted line, I believe, that it is important for me to the lead from the front and be here to really see the nuts and bolts of how this process has been completed.
To that end he did not just take the plane up for a ride. He completed the simulator training and additional ground-based tasks. He described the overall process as providing “an excellent baseline as an aviator to be able to understand the systems and, and understand how they are being utilized on the flight deck, and how the airplane performs.”
As head of the Agency the decision to return the plane to service does rest on his shoulders. And gaining direct, personal experience with the process can be useful for evaluating that decision. But does this mean he intends to take test flights on all future types before they’re certified? And, despite his long career in military and commercial aviation, does going through the training once on a plane he hasn’t flown regularly for nearly 15 years give sufficient data to make that call?
Return to service of 737MAX is still a ways out
Some analysts recently suggested that a return to operations in early November might be viable given the progress already made. Based on Dickson’s comments, however, that now appears unlikely.
Dickson described several days of training and work, capped by the test flight. He operated a flight test profile that included MCAS changes and other factors. And he repeated the statement that he really liked what he saw in the process and flying several times during the press conference. And while he described the process as hitting the “homestretch” to put the 737 MAX back in the air, “that doesn’t mean that we’re going to take shortcuts to get it done on a certain date.” He continued, “The FAA, and I in particular, will not approve the plane for return to pasture service until I’m satisfied that we’ve adequately addressed all of the known safety issues that played a role in the tragic loss of 346 lives aboard Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.”
The initial proposed rulemaking received many comments. The FAA must review those and determine which, if any, to include in its final guidance. Beyond that the Joint Operations Evaluation Board (JOEB) report and guidance must still be finalized. Once that occurs it, too, will be published as a proposal and open to comments. A standard comment period lasting 30-60 days; the prior MAX NPRM was open for 45 days. At this point getting the JOEB report comments finalized by Thanksgiving appears a long shot.
There will also almost certainly be adjustments to the pilot training regimen, informed by Dickson’s experience in the past week. He described parts of the training where “how various things are emphasized not so much in the procedures, but in some of the narrative that describes the procedures and some of the human factors issues on the aircraft…could use a little more emphasis, perhaps.” Some of those changes will be informed by the JOEB and associated comments, but it now appears the FAA will also mandate changes based on his experience.
And, as Dickson pointed out, “We’ll see where we end up after those parts of the process are completed.”
Looking beyond the return to service
Meeting those targets is a major challenge. And conversations with other regulators could further complicate the situation. EASA has suggested, for example, that an additional angle of attack sensor might be needed to further mitigate the MCAS configuration and potential for erroneous activation. Dickson acknowledged that issue while stating that the four regulatory bodies (US, Canada, Brazil, Europe) have “strived for consensus” and that “we will work to make sure that we’ve got good, sloid alignment across the globe, now and in the future.”
Dickson also hinted that some of these additional issues could be addressed in later revisions to the aircraft’s operating guidelines. He points out that “this process is designed to address the issues that the airplane was grounded for.” Additional challenges can be handled via the “continuous operational safety process that’s designed to address in service aircraft. And we will continue to work with the manufacturer on those kinds of issues going forward.”
Reading between the lines, he expects to negotiate a compromise that allows the 737 MAX to return to service sooner with the current set of updates in place, and then to further adjust the aircraft configuration in the future to add these additional measures to the configuration.
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