B737 Max compliance: FAA lives up to its role as overseer

Courtesy Getty Images

Having been criticized for oversight laxity, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is re-asserting its authority and not taking any chances as far as safety is concerned.

It is surprising that Boeing should propose no modification to the B737 Max’s wiring bundles except for the new planes awaiting delivery. This has been rejected by the FAA.

While Boeing sees no safety threat since the planes in use before the grounding had not experienced any hiccup concerning the wiring, the FAA together with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency have identified it as a potential problem.

According to the FAA, a short circuit in the wiring bundles could lead to pilots losing control of the plane.

It will be hard to restore customer’s confidence if Boeing continues to sidestep issues identified as potentially problematic, no matter how remote that possibility might be.

Indeed, isn’t there a lesson to be learned from the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 respectively?

The FAA is making it clear that the Max jet “will be cleared for return to passenger service only after the FAA is satisfied that all safety-related issues are addressed.”

Indications are that if all goes according to plans, the Max will be back in service in mid-year.

However, with the Covid-19 outbreak that has led to many airlines drastically cutting capacity, there is less of an urgency for now.

Boeing faces up to reality

The status has changed from one of a creeping delay of shifting the dates month to month, to one with a little more certainty – the certainty that the B737 Max jet is not returning to service before the northern summer, way much longer than expected.

Courtesy Getty Images

It is a reality check by Boeing under new CEO David Calhoun,allowing a wider berth for current or possible new works to be carried out leading to certification. Carriers such as American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines have moved the jet’s scheduled reintroduction to June or July.

Boeing must recognize that the company is no longer in control of the process outside fixing the technology. Once censured for lax oversight and plagued by a string of misinformation, the Federal Aviation Administration promises to be thorough and is not going to be hurried in the process. Internationally, several aviation authorities such as the European Union want to have the final say in allowing the plane back in their skies.

The wider berth may be a blessing in disguise, to allow confidence to build up barring any new technical problems or more dirty linen of the Boeing corporate culture being aired. Mr Calhoun is cleaning out the closet.

The best way to deal with hidden demons is to expose them as he has done with releasing a batch of damaging internal staff communications. He said he wanted to “get rid of the culture of arrogance” and “foster an inclusive environment that embraces oversight and accountability and puts safety, quality and integrity above all else.”

Encouraging words to begin with, but the crisis is far from being over. Henceforth if Mr Calhoun gets his cards right, there should be less negative but more positive PR, and transparency working with all stakeholders/ His number one priority is getting the Max jet off the ground, but not until he has ensured that regulators are “satisfied completely with the airplane and our work”.

The Max jet which has been grounded since March last year following two fatal air crashes is costing Boeing more than US$9 billion to date. Production of the pkane has officially been suspended. As of last year, the conpany’s deliveries of planes slumped to a record 11-year low.

FAA is doing Boeing a favor, delaying Max re-certification

Courtesy Getty Images

The B737 Max fallout has affected not only the credibility of Boeing as the aircraft manufacturer but also that of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the regulator. (See Are there more skeletons in the Boeing cupboard? Jan 10, 2020; A new beginning for Boeing? Dec 23, 2019)

The B737 Max fallout has affected not only the credibility of Boeing as the aircraft manufacturer but also that of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as the regulator.

FAA has been censured for oversight laxity when it allowed Boeing to self-certify. If it had been a friend and supporter of Boeing in the early days of the disasters of two Max air crashes involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines five months apart, it has distanced itself in working its own agenda to repair its own reputation.

Clearly FAA wants to be seen to be reasserting its authority as regulator. Its chief administrator Steve Dickson has made it known that “the FAA fully controls the approval process” and will not rush the certification at the bidding of Boeing.

To show it is serious about how Boeing had misled the FAA, the regulator is seeking to fine the aircraft manufacturer US$5.4 million for “knowingly” installing faulty parts on the Max jet, following the release of internal staff communications, one of which mentioned that the plane was “designed by clowns”. (See Are there any more skeletons in the Boeing cupboard? Jan 10, 2020)

Looking back, FAA may be wishing it had acted sooner to ground the Max jet after China became the first country to do so, followed by the rest of the world while the United States tarried, insisting at that time there was no reason to suspect the aircraft’s safety.

That, despite the revelation now of a November 2018 internal FAA analysis made after the Lion Air crash that the Max could have averaged one fatal crash about every two or three years. Whatever counter measures FAA might have taken then proved to be inadequate to prevent the Ethiopian Airlines crash.

In the words of the chairman of the House Transportation Committee Peter DeFazio, “FAA rolled the dice on the safety of the travelling public and let the 737 MAX continue to fly.”

This has led to other regulatory authorities such as Canada and the European Union setting their own criteria for approval even as FAA has made it known it is implementing stringent tests to ensure that Max is safe.

One issue has to do with the need for pilot training. It has been revealed lately that in a March 2017 email, then Boeing’s 737 chief technical pilot Mark Forkner wrote: “I want to stress the importance of holding firm that there will not be any type of simulator training required to transition from NG to Max.”

Apparently that was to cut back cost to make the price of the plane more attractive to customers, speed up aircraft production and hasten FAA approval. Boeing continued to maintain that position in the aftermath of the air disasters despite a number of regulators including Canada and the European Union insisting on the requirement. Only this week has Boeing agreed to reverse its decision and recommend Max simulator training for all pilots.

FAA in renewing its commitment to be thorough as it had not been before is in fact doing Boeing a favour by delaying approval of the new MAX, thus allowing time to heal and repair the unfortunate perception.

Are there any more skeletons in the Boeing cupboard?

In my last post, I asked if 2020 would mark a new beginning for Boeing with the appointment of a new CEO – David Calhoun – to replace Dennis Mullenberg who had held on with the support of the Boeing Board of Directors. (See A New Beginning for Boeing? Dec 23, 2019)

Courtesy Boeing

If Boeing were a Japanese company,Mr Mullenberg would have long stepped down following two fatal B737 Max crashes involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines within five months of each other. And it would likely be seen as a voluntary leadership gesture to shoulder the responsibility for what had happened.

It took the Board more than a year from the time of the first crash to fire Mr Mullenberg as the pressure piled up, pushing it to recognize – in its own words – that “a change in leadership was necessary o restore confidence in the company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders.”

For too long, Boeing had stagnated in the denial mode, which was not unexpected at the onset. But as the company dug in its heels to deny any fault on its part, the defence soon became untenable, worsened by reports about its suspect work ethos at the plants. As recent as October, one of the company’s employees was said to have misled FAA about MAX’s MCAS anti-stall technology, and that he had “basically lied” to the regulator.

One wonders how many more skeletons are left in the cupboard. Here is now the opportunity for the new Boeing to make a clean sweep of its house, or the continuing saga of mismanagement, lies and deception will hang over its shoulders like the ancient mariner’s albatross.

The release of yet another batch of company communications between employees have raised more questions of the Max jet if at all they were anything new.

One employee said in 2017: “This airplane is designed by clowns who in turn are supervised by monkeys.”

The language might be seen to be a stretch too far, but the frustrations translated into concerns were clearly there.

Another employee wrote: “Would you put your family on a Max simulator-trained aircraft? I wouldn’t.”

These redacted communications were said to be released by Boeing as part of its commitment to transparency, unlike previous criticisms of the slack work ethos at its plants.

The company itself may be said to have not helped contain the narrative from becoming one more about its trustworthiness as a company than the air crashes. While it pushes to get Max back in the air soonest, it has failed to understand the ramifications of its largely perceived insensitive and self-preserving approach.

Could this have come earlier? That lost opportunity is now water under the bridge, but public perception of Boeing as a company driven by profit at the expense of passenger’s safety has been so galvanized by the stories thus far that it is not going to be one easy to put to rest in a long time. And certainly not if more skeletons keep falling out of the Boeing cupboard.

A New Beginning for Boeing?

It has certainly been a bad year for Boeing, following the grounding of the B737 MAX jet in March after two fatal crashes that killed 346 people.

Boeing had hoped that the jet would be put back into service before the end of the year, but of course is out of the question now. While some remain hopeful of a late January or February date, many airlines are now resigned to it being longer. American Airlines, for one, has moved schedules for its likely operations to April, to avoid disruptions.

One thing clear is that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is asserting (or resuming) control of the situation after the bad press of lax oversight. FAA has said it will take all the time that it needs to ensure that the the MAX is safe. It said in a statement that “the agency will not approve the aircraft for return to service until it has completed numerous rounds of rigorous testing.”

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson has made it clear that “the FAA fully controls the approval process” and will not rush the certification at the request of Boeing.

News reports about the shoddy work at the Boeing plants continue to damage the manufacturer’s credibility. In October, one of the company’s employees was said to have misled the FAA about the Max’s MCAS anti-stall technology, that he had “basically lied” to the regulator. That raised more alarm bells.

Courtesy CNBC

There has been a lot of pressure on Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg to resign his post, not least from the US Congress. But Mullenberg held on with the support of the Board of Directors, which conceded a little by stripping him of his Chairman title but continued to express confidence in his leadership. They were to finally fully concede as Congress questioned among other things why Mullenberg hasn’t given up his pay (US$23 million in 2018) and suggested that the buck should stop with him in “a culture of negligence, incompetence and corruption”.

Mullenberg is stepping down with immediate effect, to be succeeded by the current chairman David Calhoun who will on January 13 assume the CEO post as well. In the interim, CFO Greg Smith will be at the helm.

In a statement issued by Boeing, “the Board of Directors decided that a change in leadership was necessary to restore confidence in the Company moving forward as it works to repair relationships with regulators, customers, and all other stakeholders.”

Could this have come earlier? No use looking back, but if it was a clean break that Boeing was looking to make, it had dragged its feet. For too long, the saga continued to hang over its shoulder like the albatross of Coleridge’s ancient mariner.

The uncertainty of the delay in putting the MAX back into service has forced the company to suspend production of the aircraft. Confidence in the company is slipping, and whether Qantas’ decision to pick pick Airbus over Boeing to fly the world’s longest route from Sydney to London is an indication of this or not, the timing doesn’t help. Worse, the problems of the MAX have coloured the traveller’s perception of the other jets in the same family. Boeing knows only too well that satisfying the regulator and customer airlines of the MAX’s safety is one thing, but regaining the confidence of travellers is another, which may turn out to be a greater hurdle.

Now with Mullenberg’s resignation, will the new year mark a clean break for Boeing? Seems aptly so if it could clean out whatever else is left of the skeletons in its cupboard.

Caution keeps B737 Max jet grounded

Courtesy Getty Images

Carriers which had been hopeful that the Boeing B737 Max jet would return to the skies as early as next month have deferred scheduled dates to operate the aircraft.

Earlier in August, Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenburg was hopeful that this would happen in the fourth quarter of the year and the airlines could look forward to capturing the peak holiday season traffic.

American Airlines which owns 24 of the Max jet is pushing the date to Dec 3. United Airlines with a fleet of 14 is moving it further down the road to Dec 19. It looks like both carriers are still hoping to cash in on what shall remain of the peak season including the Christmas holiday. But Southwest Airlines, the largest of the Max operators worldwide with 34 aircraft has moved the scheduled date to Jan 5 next year.

North of the border, Air Canada (which owns 24 Max jets) and Sunwing (with 4 aircraft) are not expecting the aircraft to be operational until next year. For Air Canada, it is Jan 8. And for Sunwing, even later in May. WestJet (with a fleet of 13 Max jets) too is not scheduling Max flights during the year-end holiday season, but said the company might consider an occasional flight to ease the demand should the ban be lifted then.

WestJet’s vice-president in charge of scheduling said: “It’s a little harder to unmix the cake at that point, but we would look at peak days, the Friday before Christmas (for example) where we can still sell seats and we’ll put the airplane back in.”

Elsewhere across the world, affected carriers remain non-committal on their plans. Other major operators until the jet was grounded include Norwegian Air Shuttle (18 aircraft), China Southern Airlines (16), TUI Group (15), China Eastern Airlines (14), Lion Air (14), FlyDubai (14), Turkish Airlines (12), and XiamenAir (10).

The B737 Max jet was grounded globally following two fatal incidents, one involving Indonesian carrier Lion Air in Oct last year and the other involving Ethiopian Airlines in Mar this year, both crashes claiming a total of 346 lives.

Quite naturally, carriers which own the Max jet are keen to see its early return to the skies. Many of them have cut back capacity to cope with the shortage of aircraft and are reporting losses as a consequence. United which took out 70 flights a day in its September schedule will see the number increased to 90 in December. Together, the three airlines – American, United and Southwest – have cancelled 30,000 flights. Delta Air Lines, however, stands to gain from these airlines’ disadvantage as it does not own any Max aircraft.

Budget carrier Norwegian Air Shuttle which plies the ultra-long haul is said to be on the brink of collapse, and the grounding of the B737 Max jet isn’t helping. According to former CEO Bjorn Kjos, the restriction has cost the airline US$58 million. Norwegian, which took the US by storm with its low fares, raising objection from American carriers, has cancelled numerous flights between Europe and the U.S.

Both the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Boeing have suffered some loss of credibility in the wake of the two crashes. Stories about Boeing’s shoddy work at is plants and allegations of FAA’s relegating its oversight role to the manufacturer had hit hard. FAA’s delayed action to ground the Max jet after a number of authorities across the globe had done so also called into question FAA’s leadership role in the field.

However, FAA may have learnt its lesson. Following meetings between Boeing and various industry players where disagreement on the readiness of the Max jet was apparent, FAA had said, “Our first priority is safety, and we have set no timeframe for when the work will be complete. Each government will make its own decision to return the aircraft to service, based on a thorough safety assessment.”

Europe’s aviation safety watchdog – the European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa) – for one will not rely entirely on a US verdict on whether the Max jet is safe to resume flying. It will instead additionally conduct its own tests on the plane before giving its final approval.

Transport Canada has insisted on the need for essential simulator training in early discussions when Boeing said it was not necessary since the Max jet was a variation of the B737 master model. The authority said it “will not lift the current flight restriction… until it is fully satisfied that all concerns have been addressed by the manufacturer and U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, and adequate flight crew procedures and training are in place.”

According to a report by the Wall Street Journal, multiple regulatory bodies around the world were not satisfied with Boeing’s briefing on the Max software update. They contended that Boeing “failed to provide technical details and answer specific questions about (the) modifications.” Boeing is expected to resubmit documents providing more details, and that these should be first approved by FAA before a follow-up meeting is convened. This in a way reminds FAA of its oversight role.

While affected airlines are looking forward to normalising their operations with the return of the B737 Max jet, what happens post-ban is another story. In fact, it may present a more difficult problem to handle than the technical aspects of the saga as the carriers try to win back the trust of travellers. If, indeed time is the healer, then taking the time to be absolutely convinced of the jet’s airworthiness before lifting the ban may be a good thing for the airlines.

What…? A New MAX Issue?

Courtesy Getty Images

Just as it all seems to be good news for Boeing with IAG placing a tentative order for the B737 MAX jet, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has uncovered a new potential risk during simulator tests.

Some carriers such as American Airlines have been optimistic that the grounding would be lifted soon, but the new discovery can only mean pushing the date further down the road.

The FAA has clarified that’s not the priority for now. This was made clear in a statement that it issued: “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline, for returning the Boeing 737 Max to passenger service. The FAA will lift the aircraft’s prohibition order when we deem it is safe to do so.”

The FAA seems determined to reassert itself after being criticized for lacking in oversight following the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines disasters. It sees an important role now in discovering and highlighting potential risks, and has engaged the service of a Technical Advisory Board, which is an independent panel.

On the latest finding, FAA said it is “a potential risk that Boeing must mitigate.”

IAG probably did not see this coming, but it is to be assumed that the order is only as good as when the MAX is fully certified to be airworthy.

However, each time a new issue surfaces, public confidence sinks to a new low.