The Max 8 is coming back, when?
EASA positive, FAA soon and CAAC inscrutable
Airlines starting to show schedules
The saga of the Boeing 737 Max 8 has been long and a tale of drops in altitudes of both the regulated and by association, the regulator. As the above headlines suggest, it appears that the Max 8 may be returning to service in the near future. Not surprisingly, the lede also indicates that the three CAAs are not on the same page.
Before reviewing each certification authority’s position, it is useful to reset the context of these decisions. There are about 300 of these fuel-efficient aircraft sitting in storage plus some number of undelivered Max 8 (minus cancellations) to be delivered. Fortunately for the operators, the COVID-19 pandemic has reduced demand and thus made delivery delay acceptable to the buyers. In the expectation that passengers will return, these planes will be needed for capacity.
The FAA Administrator, a former Delta Captain, has flown the MAX 8 with its newly programmed MCAS plus other significant changes, and he was quoted as saying “I Like What I See “—
“I completed a number of test profiles today to examine the functionality of the aircraft and I liked what I saw, so it responded well,” Dickson told reporters in a news conference after the flight. “I did two landings and also some air work maneuvers over about a two hour period… and I felt prepared. I think most importantly, I felt that the training prepared me to be very comfortable.”
“We are not to the point yet where we have completed the process,” Dickson said. “We’re in the home stretch but that doesn’t mean that we’re going to take shortcuts to get it done by a certain date.”
“The FAA and I in particular will not approve the plane for a return to passenger 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.”
Under the APA, it would have been inappropriate for Administrator Dickson to prejudge the pending notice of proposed rulemaking for an airworthiness directive (AD) that will mandate a number of design changes to the Boeing 737 MAX before it returns to passenger service. An October 6,2020 update on the FAA Boeing 737 MAX page with a draft Flight Standardization Board (FSB) report on the proposed pilot training for the Boeing 737 MAX. It can be found here under FSBR B737.
BOTTOM LINE: a final action is coming, but the date is not yet clear
The European Union Safety Agency, its March 12 order was the first credible, major CAA to ground the Max 8. EASA was one of the most severe critics; now it is the first major CAA to indicate that the plane is ready to return:
Boeing’s grounded 737-MAX aircraft could be close to returning to the skies by the end of this year, after Europe’s aviation safety head told Bloomberg that it is safe enough to fly.
The comment comes even as a further software upgrade the European agency demanded from Boeing (BA) won’t be ready for up to two years. Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety
Agency (EASA) said that after test flights of Boeing’s grounded aircraft conducted in September, the watchdog is performing final document reviews ahead of a draft airworthiness directive it expects to issue next month.
The process will be followed by 4 weeks of public comment, while the development of a so-called synthetic sensor to add redundancy will take 20 to 24 months, Ky told Bloomberg. The software-based solution will be required on the larger Max 10 variant before its debut targeted for 2022, and retrofitted onto other versions.
“Our analysis is showing that this is safe, and the level of safety reached is high enough for us,” Ky said in an interview with Bloomberg. “What we discussed with Boeing is the fact that with the third sensor, we could reach even higher safety levels.”
The comments mark the firmest endorsement yet from a major regulator of Boeing’s goal to return its beleaguered workhorse to service by year-end, following numerous delays and setbacks
BOTTOM LINE: a final action is coming, while the date is not yet clear, the EASA is surprisingly positive
The Chinese aircraft certification authority faces its own airworthiness determination challenges with several pending, major TC applications for large commercial aircraft. It is already engaged in a significant trade war with the US. A nascent CAA taking the lead in grounding the Max 8 was surprising, to say the least.
Feng Zhenglin, director of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, told reporters at a briefing in Beijing that the issue of the grounded Max was “high on our minds” and that there’d been some technical collaboration on the matter with U.S. and European counterparts.
Three criteria need to be approved before China allows the Max to fly again, Feng said Thursday. Any change of design needs to approved, pilot training must be comprehensive, and the conclusions of investigations into the two accidents involving the plane need to be clear and improvement measures effective.
China was the first major jurisdiction to ground the Max following the second of two crashes that killed a total of 346 people in Ethiopia and Indonesia. China’s move in March last year sparked a cascade of groundings in other countries even as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration said at the time the plane was safe to
BOTTOM LINE: the criteria set are stated to be daunting, but they appear to have been met (see EASA). Final action may be dictated by trade issues (plus some hint of favorable FAA action on the Chinese planes)
Surrogate predictors of the Max 8’s return may be found in the airlines’ announcement of schedules
The unions were actively involved in the grounding of the Max 8; Captain Sullenberger has opined that the proposed training is inadequate. ALPA and others will likely consider two aspects of the return to service—the need for training and the pilots’ need to get back to work.
These three CAAs show varying degree of support for the aircraft’s return. The other CAAs which face this issue will make their decisions seriatim (the JATR was formed to reach some consensus-WHAT HAPPENED?). Geopolitical, trade and other considerations will likely influence the timing of decisions.
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