Some aviation analysts are saying the gesture was hollow, as the head of the US Federal Aviation Administration climbed into a Boeing 737 MAX simulator in Seattle for the benefit of reporters, amid the biggest financial aviation disaster of all time.
In the end, the FAA boss told the media there is no timetable to recertify the troubled jetliner, China Daily reported.
Stephen Dickson, a former Air Force pilot who has flown earlier versions of the 737 during his career at Delta Airlines, tested a version of the new software that’s intended to give pilots more control over the anti-stall system that may have played a role in two MAX crashes that killed 346 passengers and crew.
He declined to say how the updated anti-stall software performed. But after an initial test that mimicked normal flight conditions, Dickson told The Associated Press, “The airplane handles very well from everything I can tell.”
Dickson also toured a MAX assembly line near Seattle, Wash., for a press photo op, and met with senior Boeing officials.
In a tweet, the FAA said Dickson’s use of a flight simulator to test the new software underscored the “FAA’s unwavering commitment to safely return the aircraft to service.”
But one analyst previously said Dickson’s attempt to burnish the FAA’s image and gain hands-on experience with the new software was pure “theater.”
“At the margins, it’s theater,” Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann & Co, an aviation consulting firm in Port Washington, New York, told China Daily.
“Dickson has more experience in this area than his predecessor, and therefore it’s understandable that he wants to get hands-on experience.”
Boeing hasn’t yet submitted its analysis of the software update to the FAA for review. The aircraft manufacturer hopes MAX jets will return to service in the fourth quarter of this year, the report said.
But Southwest Airlines, which operates more MAX flights than any other US airline, has canceled use of the jet through Jan 5.
MAX jets were grounded worldwide after crashes Oct 29, 2018, in Indonesia and March 10 in Ethiopia. China was the first nation to ground the 737 MAX.
China’s three biggest airlines have asked Boeing for compensation caused by the grounding and delayed deliveries of the 737 MAX. The compensation requests have also come at a sensitive time in Sino-US relations.
The grounding of the 737 Max will racked up losses of 4 billion yuan (US$579 million) for Chinese carriers at the end of June. That figure has likely grown considerably, aviation analysts say. According to aviation websites, Chinese carriers operate 97 737 Max aircraft in total.
Critics say the FAA damaged its reputation by relying on Boeing engineers when initially certifying the MAX. As a result, other regulatory agencies are unlikely to simply adopt the FAA’s recertification of the plane.
Even the FAA’s strongest ally, Transport Canada, is unlikely to jump on the MAX bandwagon without considerably scrutiny of Boeing’s oft-delayed software update. There are even some who suggest the plane’s designed is flawed and it can’t be saved. In other words, countries will decide.
Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority said it may deny permission for MAX jets to fly into the nation’s airspace even if its US counterpart approves the plane’s return to commercial service.
CASA said it is working closely with other regulators, including the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and Transport Canada. “Those views will be part of our thinking when we make a decision,” a spokesman for the Australian regulator told the British newspaper the Guardian.
Australian airlines don’t fly MAX jets, but Virgin has ordered 38, and Qantas has expressed an interest in purchasing the fuel-efficient plane.
The regulatory agencies in various nations may recertify MAX aircraft at different times, creating a staggered return to service for the plane. This could create scheduling problems on international routes, extend disruptions and limit airline revenue, analysts said.
Meanwhile, International Air Transport Association (IATA) director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac renewed his call for global aviation safety regulators to harmonize the MAX’s re-entry into service, warning an uncoordinated approach would “complexify” the entire exercise, AINonline.com reported.
“It would create mistrust in the old system [of a single certification]. It is a big concern,” he added. Addressing another concern over the prospect of a patchwork of conditions and timelines developing if, as the FAA on Monday insisted, each government decides for itself when to return to MAX to service, de Juniac said he hoped the meeting “will lead to a better alignment even if the FAA, and each country, make their own decision.”
Juniac was speaking during a teleconference with media ahead of the 40th Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), beginning Tuesday in Montreal.