Andy Pasztor and
Nov. 26, 2019 9:46 pm ET
In the latest hurdle confronting Boeing Co. ’s bid to get its grounded 737 MAX fleet back in the air, federal regulators now intend to inspect and sign off on every jet individually before delivery to airlines.
The move, spelled out Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration in a letter to the plane maker, signals that resuming MAX flights will be more complicated and perhaps time-consuming than previously projected.
The FAA stripped Boeing of longstanding authority to perform such routine, pre-delivery safety checks and signoffs of MAX planes on its own, amounting to another public pushback by the agency against company pressure to accelerate the reinstatement.
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It isn’t clear how much of a delay the change is likely to create. Some of the fallout is symbolic, while the eventual impact will partly depend on how effectively Boeing prepares jets removed from service and partly on the availability of FAA employees to process steps to get them back in the air.
The decision comes as industry officials world-wide increasingly question whether initial MAX deliveries are probable before year’s end.
In an email, a Boeing spokesman said: “We continue to work with the FAA on the safe return to service of the MAX fleet.” Early Wednesday, the spokesman said “we welcome and embrace this decision by the FAA. Safety is our number one priority.”
At the very least, the FAA’s message appears to continue a public-relations tussle between Boeing, which has been angling to start some MAX deliveries by late December, and FAA leaders, who have increasingly been stressing that they don’t have a specific timeline and won’t sacrifice safety to speed up the process.
Even if Boeing receives the FAA’s signoff on software fixes to flight-control computers and begins a trickle of MAX deliveries in December, it is expected to take additional weeks for the FAA and foreign regulators to complete associated changes in pilot training.
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But the language in the letter, signed by John Piccola, head of the FAA’s Boeing oversight office, and sent to Elizabeth Pasztor, a senior company compliance official, raises doubts about Boeing’s overall safety practices and safeguards. The letter extends the revised delivery procedures to newly manufactured MAX aircraft, an area that hasn’t received stepped-up public scrutiny in the past.
According to the letter, the FAA made the decision because the current backlog of some 600 MAX jets in storage around the globe poses challenges that “significantly exceed any that the Boeing system has previously experienced.” Boeing will need to vet the planes it has stored, as well as assisting airlines to prepare planes that have been sitting idle for eight months to resume commercial service.
In addition, the letter said that, going forward, the FAA will have sole authority “to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates” for all 737 MAX models. Without such paperwork, airlines typically won’t pay Boeing for delivering jets.
“At a minimum,” the letter indicates, the agency won’t return authority for such pre-delivery approvals to Boeing until the company’s “737 MAX compliance, design and production processes meet all regulatory standards” to ensure public safety.
Airlines have been anxious for Boeing to resume delivery of the MAX jets. The carriers have to follow a series of steps to prepare their aircraft to carry passengers, and some had been hoping to avoid bottlenecks and long waits as customers clamor to receive their MAX jets once the plane is cleared for service.
Southwest Airlines Co. , American Airlines Group Inc. and United Airlines Holdings Inc.have cleared the MAX from their schedules through early March.
A spokesman for American said the airline is working closely with the FAA and Boeing and awaiting guidance from the agency. “The FAA controls this process,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Southwest said the FAA’s latest strategy doesn’t change the airline’s planning for return to service. A representative for United declined to comment.
Boeing’s earlier proposals to start delivering MAX jets by the end of the year prompted pushback from within the FAA. Ali Bahrami, the agency’s top safety official, wrote a note to Administrator Steve Dickson earlier this month, saying that reports of Boeing’s plans “have resulted in concerns” among safety professionals.
“I would like to send a strong message to the 737 Max team to reassure them that safety, not Boeing’s schedule, is our top priority,” Mr. Bahrami wrote.
In a memo and in a video message, Mr. Dickson reassured employees that the FAA “fully controls” the approval process and told them to make safety—not Boeing’s schedule—the priority.
“I know there’s a lot of pressure to return this aircraft to service quickly,” he said. “I want you to know that I want you to take the time you need and focus solely on safety. I’ve got your back.”
The setback for Boeing comes as regulators from the U.S., Canada and other countries appear to be moving closer together on eventual training requirements for MAX pilots. Barring some unexpected changes, the FAA seems headed toward allowing U.S. carriers to put their jets back into service using only computer-based training for crews—without mandating any time in ground-based simulators.
But afterward, according to industry and government officials, the FAA may require extra simulator time for MAX pilots in the U.S. as part of their normal recurrent training. Similarly, some of these officials said, regulators in Canada and elsewhere are leaning toward the same sequence, including additional simulator time to practice unusual flight upsets. European regulators, seeking to impose their own requirements without creating major disruptions in pilot training, also could embrace such steps as part of a compromise to start the MAX flying passengers again, according to industry officials on both sides of the Atlantic.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com and Alison Sider at firstname.lastname@example.org