FAA Administrator Steve Dixon announced on November 18, 2020, as we were going to press, that he was rescinding the order that grounded the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft 616 days after it was taken from the skies. What a long, strange trip it has been.
Before saying anything else, let us take a moment and acknowledge the 346 lives that were lost aboard both Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. We wish those families peace. Boeing also reflected on those losses. “We will never forget the lives lost in the two tragic accidents that led to the decision to suspend operations,” said David Calhoun, Boeing CEO. “These events and the lessons we have learned as a result have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity.” Please see Jeff Guzzetti’s article about the Lion Air accident and related maintenance concerns in our last issue, Autumn 2020, starting on page 36.
The Airworthiness Directive published by FAA specifies design changes that must be made before the aircraft returns to service including installing software enhancements, completing wire separation modifications, conducting pilot training and accomplishing thorough de-preservation activities that will ensure the airplanes are ready for service.
FAA also issued a Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community (CANIC) and published the MAX training requirements. Accomplishing all of these things will slow the MAX from returning immediately to the skies. The pilot training program revisions must be incorporated by each airline operating the MAX. Airlines must also take required maintenance steps to prepare them to fly again.
In a press conference on November 18, 2020, Administrator Dixon said the MAX journey had been a “painful and arduous process” that ultimately strengthened the cooperation between other regulators. “We serve as the certifying authority; they serve as the validating authority. In this particular case, one of the things I’m really proud of is the transparency that we’ve had with them throughout this process,” Dixon said. “We worked side by side with the foreign authorities. This is the most heavily scrutinized transport aircraft in history,” Dixon said.
When asked if anyone was held accountable for the MAX situation Dixon replied, “I think we all hold ourselves accountable every day and I never want to take the easy way out. It’s easy to point the finger, blame individuals for things. I’m interested in improving processes and continuing to raise the bar on safety. If I see a need to make a change in certain areas, I will do that…We are doing that. We stood up an ODA office. We have measures in place to make sure it does not happen again and to make sure that we’ve got a solid human factors and an operational perspective throughout the entire certification process.”
Dixon was asked if he felt what happened with the MAX would result in longer certification times for future aircraft. He said one of the things they needed to do was exercise oversight from a “systematic perspective.” He said putting in place safety management systems (SMS) would help them do that. He stressed the need for manufacturers to push data and information to FAA on a more regular basis, rather than on a transactional basis. “I don’t know that it necessarily increases the amount of time, but I think it does improve the systematic rigor of the process. And that’s what we’re shooting for in terms of improving and moving to really the next level of safety with aircraft certification. I wouldn’t say longer, but I would say better,” Dixon stressed.
He repeated numerous times the FAA’s desire to improve the certification process, make it more systematic and to be more data driven. However, he also added, “The design of the aircraft was not the only causal factor. We had maintenance issues. We had also had issues with how the airplane was operated. So we’ve got to take a look at all of those and how they all interact.” Administrator Dickson personally took the recommended pilot training and piloted the Boeing 737 MAX, so he could experience the handling of the aircraft firsthand. He was already a type-certified 737 captain for Delta Air Lines for many years.
Rescinding the previous order to ground the MAX will allow airlines that are under the FAA’s jurisdiction, including those in the U.S., to take the steps necessary to resume service and for Boeing to begin making deliveries.
Boeing says they have worked closely with airlines, providing them with detailed recommendations regarding long-term storage. The beleaguered company also says in a statement that it has focused on improving their company by taking concrete steps to ensure a similar problem does not occur again. These steps include an organizational alignment, bringing 50,000 engineers together in a single organization that includes a new “Product & Services Safety” unit and unifying safety responsibilities across the company. Boeing also says a shift in cultural focus has taken place where engineers have been further empowered to improve safety and quality. The company says they are identifying, diagnosing and resolving issues with a higher level of transparency and immediacy.
Although the company, the FAA and other regulators seem to be on board with this important move towards getting the MAX airborne again, Dixon admitted that some may still feel trepidation, even though it is the most heavily scrutinized transport aircraft history. He said he would put his own family on it. Still, he admitted that being skeptical was understandable. “Skepticism in aviation is a very important attribute,” Dixon said.