The head of the US Federal Aviation Administration raised the possibility that it could take months longer to certify the grounded Boeing 737 Max as safe to fly, as fractious global regulators gathered to discuss fixes to flight software implicated in two deadly crashes.
Speaking on the eve of a meeting of 30 international air regulators on Thursday, Daniel Elwell, the acting FAA chief, said the agency was still waiting for Boeing to submit a software update aimed at preventing air disasters such as those in Indonesia and Ethiopia which killed 346 people.
He told reporters the FAA has also not yet decided whether pilots will be required to undergo simulator training on the updated Max, a move that could substantially delay a return to service but which some global regulators may insist upon.
“If you said October I wouldn’t even say that, only because we haven’t finished determining exactly what the training requirements will be,” Mr Elwell said. “If it takes a year to find everything we need to give us the confidence to lift the [grounding] order so be it.”
Canada, Europe and Indonesia made clear ahead of the meeting that they would set their own conditions for determining when the plane is safe to fly again, threatening the FAA’s goal of building consensus for a co-ordinated plan to put the 737 Max back into action.
The aircraft, a variant of the Boeing 737 which has been in service since the 1960s, was grounded after the March 10 crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302. The grounding of the plane has precipitated the biggest crisis in the history of Boeing, the world’s largest commercial aircraft manufacturer.
At the same time as regulators are meeting in Texas on Thursday, executives from some of the biggest Max-operating airlines will meet under the auspices of the International Air Transport Association in Canada to discuss how to deal with the challenge of the aircraft’s grounding.
United Airlines chief executive Oscar Munoz said on Wednesday that he planned to be aboard its first flight of the 737 Max when it returns to operation, but also conceded the public may take some time to be assured of its safety. He promised United would rebook passengers who did not want to fly on the Max.
American Airlines boss Doug Parker also addressed public fears in an interview. “What we need to do is have the airplane be deemed airworthy, be back in service, have American Airlines pilots flying,” he told NBC Nightly News. “I know if that is the case, the airplane is 100 per cent safe, as will most of our customers. And over time others will see that and come to the same conclusion.”
Canada, which normally moves closely in tandem with the US on aviation matters, said that it had sent a “list of questions and action items to address” before the aircraft could return to Canadian skies.
“From our point of view, if we all work together and we all reach the same aim, fine. If we don’t, we’ll choose our own time to decide when the planes are safe to fly again,” Canadian transport minister Marc Garneau said ahead of the Texas meeting. “The number one focus for us is that we in Canada must be satisfied. It doesn’t matter what others do.”
Mr Garneau has previously said Canada could require simulator training before allowing the Max to fly again, but Transport Canada, the regulator, said in a statement on Wednesday that it was working closely with the FAA to “analyse training requirements”.
Boeing says it has finished testing, but has not yet formally submitted for approval, a fix for the Max’s anti-stall software, called the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system, or MCAS. In an update last week, it said it was providing additional information to address FAA requests that include detail on how pilots interact with the plane controls and displays in different flight scenarios.
The European regulator EASA has told the FAA and Boeing that it has three “prerequisite conditions”, including demands that design changes for the plane are approved by the European agency, before it will lift its grounding order. Indonesia, site of the first accident in October when a Lion Air flight crashed into the sea, revealed on Wednesday that it may ask EASA or Transport Canada for a second opinion before lifting the flight ban.
“We have peace with other regulators,” Mr Elwell said on Wednesday. “We’re talking to them constantly. You want to make this like, ‘We’re at war with the other countries over this.’ We’re not.”
China, which was the first big regulator to ground the Max and a crucial market for Boeing, could be one of the last countries to lift its ban, aviation sources said.
Chinese regulators are likely to insist on additional checks before they clear the plane to fly. That could erode the existing convention by which nations recognise safety certifications from the manufacturer nation, and someday provide an opening for Beijing to push for easier recognition of the planes it is developing. Chinese airlines and leasing companies account for at least 10 per cent of Boeing’s unfilled order book for the Max.
Brazil, one of the few global regulators that mandated pilot training on the MCAS before allowing the Max to fly, said it continues to conduct “our own evaluations about the aircraft”.
Reporting by Patti Waldmeir in Chicago, Sylvia Pfeifer in London, Stefania Palma in Singapore, Lucy Hornby and Yizhen Jia in Beijing and Carolina Unzelte and Andres Schipani in São Paulo