FAA chief confirms MAX grounding will stretch into 2020

December 12, 2019
Photo: Boeing

US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) boss Steve Dickson has confirmed what many had already guessed: Boeing’s hopes that the Boeing 737 MAX will be re-certified by the end of 2019 have been dashed.

Some observers now believe the plane may not return to the skies until towards the end of the first quarter of next year.

Speaking to CNBC’s Squawk Box, Dickson said there were a number of milestones still to be ticked off before the troubled plane returns to the skies.

READ: New Podcasts FACTS telling a different Lion Air crash story

Dickson initially stuck to his standard response there was no FAA timeline for recertifying the MAX but later confirmed it would not happen in 2019.

“We’re going to follow every step of the process, however long that takes,’’ he said. “There are about 10 or 11 milestones left to complete.

“We’re in the portion of the process right now where we’re looking at the validation of how the software was developed. That’ll take some time, but we’ll work through every step of the process very diligently.”

Pressed on whether recertification could still happen in 2019, he said; “If you do the arithmetic, each one of these processes is going to take some time.

“There are a few independencies, there are some things that run in parallel. For example, once the design is approved, once we do the certification flight, there are pilot training requirements that have to be defined and we’re bringing in international pilots to help us with that process.

“And then there will be a report that goes out for public comment and if you just do the math it’s going to extend into 2020.”

READ: FAA chief vows MAX will not fly until it is safe for his family

Dickson said it was impossible to say whether the plane would be recertified by the end of January or even February.

“If I had that kind of a crystal ball I would certainly be able to share it but it’s very important that our team works very closely with the international authorities that have been working with us and with the Boeing team to do this right,” he added.

Asked if he was frustrated that Boeing had continued  to back its 2019 prediction, he said he had made it clear that “Boeing’s plan is not the FAA’s plan”.

“We’re certainly working very closely together but we’re going to keep our heads down and support the team in getting this work done right,” he said.

On the question of pressure from Boeing, he said he would not say there had been any requests to cut corners.

“There have been discussions from time to time about which processes run in parallel and where the interdependencies are,” he said.

“And that’s dialogue that’s not counterproductive but  I just want to make it clear that we’re going to be diligent about every step of the process, whether it’s training or software development design or mechanical issues with the airplane.”

FAA MAX family
FAA administrator Steve Dickson. Image: CNBC

Dickson was also asked about a report in The Wall Street Journal about an internal report after the first MAX crash that said the aircraft would averaged one fatal crash every two to three years without design changes.

The FAA decided that alerting flight crews to how they should respond to MCAS would be sufficient to allow the MAX to keep flying until a permanent design change was implemented.

That assumption came unstuck some five months later with the second crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX.

The Journal said this amounted to a substantially greater safety risk than Boeing and the FAA indicated publicly at the time and it raised questions about the agency’s decision-making at the time.

The FAA chief said report related to a risk management process taken after an Airworthiness Directive issued in the wake of the Lion Air crash.

“And then the team came together as data came in to develop a decision to support tool to determine how quickly we needed to move forward with the manufacturer with modifications to the aircraft,’’ he said.

He noted a decision to ground an aircraft had only really happened three times in the FAA’s history and there was a need to understand the causes of an accident.

“And remember MCAS didn’t bring down this aircraft by itself,’’ he said. “We had maintenance issues the aircraft, there issues with how the aircraft was operated.

“Again, all of these things acting together create a certain level of risk that we need to manage and bring down to an appropriate level.

“And we also need to recognize, I would be the first to say, that what we have done historically in terms of safety is not good enough today and is not going to be good enough tomorrow.

“So we need to continue and refine and improve these processes.”

Dickson said there had been no decision on pilot training.  Boeing wants computer-based training for the transition to the MAX from other 737s, but a number of countries have called for the use of flight simulators.

He said Boeing would make a proposal as part of the process and a team of 16 US and international pilots of various experience levels and backgrounds would validate the proposal in a simulator.

“After that we will produce an addendum to the Flight Standardization Board report, which is the process by which the airplane is certified from an operations and training perspective.

“We want for the outcome of that process to make that final determination.”

Dickson acknowledged there would also be a public comment period for the training proposal in addition to a 30-day minimum equipment list comment period launched over a week ago.

“Again, as I said, just doing the arithmetic on these processes, you see that it pushes into next year,” he said.

He had also not received any pressure from the White House on the issue.

“No, I’ve not,” he said. “This is my decision, this is the agency’s decision and Secretary Chao has been very supportive and White House has been very supportive as well.’