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With regulators wary, Boeing faces more hurdles to restore 737 MAX fleet

  • Author: Mike Baker, Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times
  • Updated: March 20
  • Published March 20

Seven weeks after it rolled out of the paint hangar, Boeing's first 737 MAX, the Spirit of Renton, flies for the first time Jan. 29, 2016, from Renton Municipal Airport. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/TNS)

SEATTLE -- Boeing’s effort to resume flights for its grounded fleet of 737 MAX airplanes now faces new hurdles, as regulators outside the United States said they will give independent scrutiny to the company’s plans before allowing the planes to fly again.

Internally, meanwhile, Boeing on Tuesday appointed its head of engineering, John Hamilton, to lead the company's efforts in the twin investigations into the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes. Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Kevin McAllister told employees in a memo he made the move to "prioritize and bring on additional resources for the ongoing accident investigations."

While officials in the United States are hoping that the Federal Aviation Administration will approve a software update by the end of this month, leaders in Europe said they won't allow the aircraft to fly until they have done a separate review. Likewise, officials in Canada said they'll want to conduct their own assessment of Boeing's software fix.

Those decisions demonstrate a fracturing regulatory environment for Boeing, which has historically won approvals with foreign agencies following the lead of the FAA. And it suggests that Boeing's effort to get the MAX flying again may take longer, even as manufacturing continues at its plant in Renton.

Peter Goelz, a former managing director for the National Transportation Safety Board, said it’s unusual for those foreign regulators to spend extra time scrutinizing something after the FAA. He said that could create problems for Boeing, as the company is looking toward the light at the end of the tunnel but may end up with approval to fly again in the United States while planes remain grounded elsewhere.

Goelz said Boeing and the FAA are both going to have to do a lot to regain their credibility over the next year.

“It’s certainly something that the FAA is going to have to address and work on,” Goelz said. “They are going to have to regain the confidence of other regulatory and safety organizations, to say that the gold standard has been restored.”

On Tuesday, the White House announced that President Donald Trump would nominate former Delta Air Lines executive Steve Dickson to lead the FAA. The FAA has been led by an acting administrator, Daniel Elwell, for more than a year.

Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat whose congressional district covers Boeing facilities in the Everett area, has said he expects MAX planes to return to the skies by the end of April.

But on Tuesday, Air Canada announced that it does not intend to fly its 24 MAX aircraft for at least a few more months.

"Because the timeline for the return to service of the 737 MAX is unknown, for planning purposes and to provide customers certainty for booking and travel, Air Canada intends to remove 737 MAX flying from its schedule until at least July 1, 2019," the company said in a release.

Canada's transport minister, Marc Garneau, said on Monday that the agency is re-examining the validation it gave the MAX, according to the CBC. Garneau also said Transport Canada would do its own examination of Boeing's proposed software fix "even if it's certified by the FAA."

In Europe, a leader at safety agency EASA said it will look "very deeply" at the MAX updates and not allow the aircraft to fly "if we have not found acceptable answers to all our questions," according to Reuters. The FAA and EASA have historically followed each other's lead, with the FAA certifying Boeing planes and EASA focusing on Airbus ones.

A Seattle Times story over the weekend detailed how FAA managers pushed its engineers to delegate more of the certification process to Boeing itself. The Times story also detailed flaws in an original safety analysis that Boeing delivered to the FAA.

Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, in a public message and accompanying video, said Boeing will soon “release a software update and related pilot training for the 737 MAX that will address concerns discovered in the aftermath of the Lion Air Flight 610 accident.”

The software change is focused on the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, also known as MCAS, which was added to the plane so that it would behave in a similar way to older 737 models. MCAS is designed to push the plane's nose down if a sensor determines that the plane is ascending at too steep an angle, putting it at risk of a stall.

In the wake of the Lion Air crash in October, which killed 189 people, investigators have said that a false sensor reading repeatedly triggered MCAS to push the nose of the plane down. Investigators haven't released a report from this month's crash in Ethiopia, which killed 157 people, but officials say there are "clear similarities" with the Lion Air crash.

Along with skepticism around the globe, Boeing also faces scrutiny in the United States. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao said Tuesday she has asked the department's inspector general to conduct a formal audit of the certification process for the MAX.

To lead Boeing's technical efforts to find out what has caused the accidents and what must be done to get the 737 MAX back off the ground, the company shuffled its top Commercial Airplanes engineers Tuesday.

Hamilton, vice president of engineering and formerly chief project engineer for the 737, was appointed chief engineer. McAllister said in this role Hamilton can "fully dedicate his attention to the ongoing accident investigations."

Boeing said Hamilton will bring together engineering resources and capabilities from across the company.

Hamilton has personal experience of deep dread over a plane accident. His wife is an Alaska Airlines flight attendant who on Jan. 31, 2000, was flying out of Puerto Vallarta in Mexico. When Hamilton heard that Flight 261 out of that city and bound for Seattle had crashed, he feared she was among the 88 killed. He found out later she was on a different flight.

Speaking at an air-safety conference in Seattle in mid-November, soon after the Lion Air crash, Hamilton expressed deep sadness over the accident, adding: "What we do every day matters. The work we do touches so many lives."

Replacing Hamilton as vice president of engineering, responsible for all the company's engineering design and airplane-certification work, is Lynne Hopper.

Previously, Hopper was the vice president of Boeing Test & Evaluation, where she was responsible for laboratory and flight-test operations in support of certifying Boeing commercial and defense products. Until 2007, Hopper led the development of delegated authorized representatives, or designees, the Boeing employees who work on behalf of the FAA to certify airplanes. Her Boeing bio page says she has held leadership positions in Airplane Safety and Airworthiness.

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