European safety agency set to re-certify 737 MAX

by Andreas Spaeth
January 20, 2021
737 MAX

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has announced it will finally follow the US and Canada and give the Boeing 737MAX permission to fly again by next week.

“We expect to publish the final Airworthiness Directive next week. This means the MAX will be cleared to fly again in Europe from our perspective by then”, said EASA’s Executive Director Patrick Ky on Tuesday in a virtual briefing from the authority’s headquarters in Cologne, Germany.

A team of 20 EASA experts had worked for two years to recertify the aircraft. “In order to fly again, there are a certain number of prerequisites to fulfill by the aircraft, we have asked for software updates, rewiring and a certain number of things which we uncovered during our certification works, and also a lot of training which will be necessary for the pilots,” said Ky.

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The EASA Director gave four conditions that had to be met before his authority would grant recertification to Boeing’s former bestseller:

  • To fully understand what happened in the two accidents in 2018 and 2019, killing a total of 346 people on board both aircraft.
  • Then to solve problems with systems that contributed to the accidents, mostly the MCAS automated trimming system as well as the alert system for the angle of attack (AOA) of the aircraft in the oncoming airstream.
  • Also, EASA insisted to review certain components deemed safety-critical by the Europeans, as the authority didn’t review them itself in the original MAX certification, then only being the secondary certification authority behind the leading FAA.
  • And finally to ensure that the pilots are properly informed and trained on how to operate the MAX.

“We are now reaching a stage where we are confident that these four prerequisites are met and that’s why we will allow the aircraft to go back to service next week,” assured Patrick Ky.

The 737MAX crisis has been causing a major shakeup in procedures established for decades with almost all other certification authorities around the world used to almost automatically rubber-stamp FAA decisions and certifications. And it has damaged the FAA’s reputation with fellow authorities.

“We will now systematically review all the systems we regard as critical to safety and do the certification of them ourselves. This one of the lessons learned from the MAX crisis,” said Patrick Ky. “We will apply the same for the 777X as the next certification coming up, and all aircraft that we will certify in Europe in the future. We were not necessarily doing that enough on US products before and will do that more now,” he announced.

And Ky acknowledged this might lead to delays: “The new proceedings possibly can lead to longer certification processes in the future, but don’t have to necessarily, I’m sure we will find the right balance fairly soon,” Ky cautioned and expressed hope at the same time. Established procedures couldn’t be sustained anymore after the recent experiences.

“We need to work on more of how we work together with the FAA and how we complement each other, as it obviously didn’t work well for the MAX,” the head of EASA stressed while acknowledging: “For the recertification of the MAX we had full transparency from Boeing and the FAA. This doesn’t mean we were aligned and agreed every time, but we worked very well together.”

It seems EASA is now satisfied that the 737MAX is a 100% safe aircraft after the required modifications have been done. “We have tested the 737MAX even without MCAS, and it would be safe to fly not using the system at all,” revealed Ky.

One major point of criticism in the original MAX design was the fact the whole crucial system relied on a single AOA sensor when usually at least two are provided. The second one is now incorporated into the new architecture, but Ky was questioned why they didn’t embrace the need for a third one, for an even higher safety margin.

“We decided against a third physical AOA sensor which would have been difficult to integrate into the 737MAX design,” explained the EASA Director, “but instead opted to have a synthetic sensor developed, which calculates the angle of attack rather than measuring it, this will be incorporated in the next version 737MAX10 from 2022.”

And EASA’s Director had good news for low-cost carrier Ryanair, still awaiting delivery of the first of a hundred 737MAX 200s on order. “We are also certifying the 200 variant of the MAX these days and expect certification to be ready in the coming weeks, so the aircraft should be ready to fly in the summer.”