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

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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.

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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

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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.

What…? A New MAX Issue?

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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.

IAG Boost for Boeing

Courtesy Boeing

British Airways owner IAG made a bold decision at the Paris Air Show when it announced a tentative order of 200 Boeing B737 MAX jet. It must have surprised quite a number of industry folk to come so soon after the fatal Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines incidents, and that the aircraft is still being grounded. After all, Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg had said participation at the Paris Air Show for Boeing was not about getting new aircraft orders but to restore confidence in the MAX jet. IAG’s support has certainly given Boeing that much needed boost.

Now, is IAG being too hasty at a time when many people are still not comfortable about thinking of flying the MAX as it stays grounded? Clearly the European airline group which also operates Iberia, Aer Lingus and budget carriers Vueling and Level is convinced the time will come, and when it does, IAG partners are ready ahead of others. It is not as if the aircraft will be delivered to IAG’s doorsteps the following morning. And with that conviction, now may be an excellent time to cut a good deal when Boeing is hungry to regain customers’ favour.

It would be a tad too altruistic to think IAG’s decision was a deliberate move for the benefit of the airline community, so as to keep the competition between Boeing and Airbus alive. As it is, Airbus which announced a new version of the A321 at the Paris Air Show, is not hiding its disappointment over the IAG-Boeing deal, noting that IAG had not issued a formal tender and staring Airbus’ interest in bidding for the order.

“We would like a chance to compete for that business,” Airbus chief commercial officer Christian Scherer told reporters at the show.

Now, given the boost by IAG, Boeing said it was in talks with a number of other airlines for sales of its MAX jet. It needed to keep up the momentum.

The big question still remains as to when the MAX jet will get off the ground. IAG may be right that time heals, and many travellers will eventually get back to flying the MAX jet whether out of necessity or expedience. Obviously the traveller doesn’t figure in the equation. After all, how many people are actually finicky about the make of the aircraft that they are flying? There will be some, but will the number be material enough to make the airlines think twice?

No new spin: Boeing sings the same apologetic tune

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The Paris Air Show (June 17 to 23) should provide an opportunity for aircraft manufacturer Boeing to clear the air of any misgiving and doubt that industry players may have of the company’s commitment to production priorities following the B737-800 MAX 8 disasters and the unsavoury stories that have unfolded since the two incidents involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines.

It will be a mammoth effort trying to regain customer trust particularly in light of how many travellers surveyed have indicated they would not ever fly the MAX jet even after the authorities have cleared it for service resumption. So far it is anybody’s guess as to when the grounding will be lifted. The date keeps pushing into the future.

Airlines which own a sizeable fleet of the MAX, having reported the cancellation of thousands of flights since the grounding, may be keen to see it back up in the air sooner. American Airlines which owns a fleet of 24 jets is pre-empting an October date.

But the authorities want to be more conservative this time as they grapple with issues of training and procedures with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) thinking it may be longer than that. Canadian transportation authorities for one are insisting on simulator training which Boeing, the FAA and American carriers think would not be necessary.

Boeing CEO Dennis Mullenberg all but knows too well the score. Quite wisely he had said of the Paris Air Show: “This is a different show for us, it is not about orders. It is really focused on safety and the safe return of the Max flight.”

Boeing had reported no new commercial aircraft orders in May, although according to Mr Mullenberg, the company had more than 4,000 orders of the MAX jet in backlog. He is expecting to see the aircraft back in the air by the end of the year, but the timeline is still not specific if not uncertain. Reports seem to be ambivalent as to whether the software glitch of the computer system known as MCAS has been definitively fixed or that Boeing is still working on the update.

The hardware may not be as difficult an issue to handle as that which concerns public opinion, perception and reservations. So in doses Boeing is dishing out apologetic messages but falling short of admitting sole responsibility for the tragic MAX incidents.

Mr Mullenberg expressed disappointment that Boeing had not been more transparent with regulators and the public when it discovered a safety light was not operating as designed. He echoed Boeing vice-president Gordon Johndroe who said ahead of the Paris Air Show: “We clearly fell short in the implementation of the AOA disagree alert and we clearly should have communicated better with our regulators and the airlines.”

And, one wonders, what would have had happened then?

Clearly the road ahead for Boeing is marked with PR pointers to appeal to the heart for understanding and perhaps implicitly forgiveness without admitting liability. It knows that the airlines who were operating the MAX before its grounding have much to lose if they do not work together to get the aircraft safely back in the air.

New MAX issues will keep jet on the ground

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Just as you think all that’s left remaining to be said of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 saga is waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration Authority of the United States (FAA) to announce the lifting of its grounding, new developments – whether directly or indirectly related – continue to stand in its way, making the delicate job of regaining customer’s confidence even more challenging.

Even as one is willing to put past issues aside – issues such as poor oversight and shoddy work at the Boeing plant, FAA’s laxity at certification, tardy reaction to warnings by pilots of potential issues with the MAX – adding new ones can only shake that confidence. What other beasts are out there to be discovered?

Latest, Boeing is warning airlines about potential flaws on the wings of some 737 jets including the MAX. More than 300 aircraft across the world may be affected, said to be the result of “improper manufacturing process” leading potentially to premature failure or cracks of the faulty parts. The aircraft manufacturer’s transparency is to be appreciated, but coming after two fatal crashes of the Max jet with a definitive conclusion still pending is unfortunately ill-timed. Of course, it is good to know that Boeing is committed to giving attention to the potential problem top priority.

Going forward, Boeing may have fixed the software glitch of the MAX, but airlines and regulators are still grappling with the issue of pilot training. Boeing, FAA and US carriers such as American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines all of which are big Max customers do not think simulator training is necessary, believing training on computers or tablets is sufficient for seasoned pilots.

It recalls how Boeing had said pilots familiar with the B737 aircraft would know what to do and that there were procedures in place to handle the kind of malfunction that some pilots had reported to have encountered. Ethiopian authorities had insisted that the pilots of the ill-fated Ethiopian Airlines flight had followed the procedures but were unable to control the aircraft.

Boeing too had said it would make an already safe aircraft “safer”, so to the lay traveller, why not be “doubly” sure?

Canada is one country that had said the US proposal of computer-based training which some pilots had received in the transition from the older B737 jet to the Max was not good enough. According to a Reuters report, Canadian Transport Minister Marc Garneau said: “It’s not going to be a question of pulling out an iPad and spending an hour on it. Simulators are the very best way, from a training point of view, to go over exactly what could happen in a real way and to react properly to it.”

Airlines favouring simulator training include Ryanair and Ethiopian Airlines.

According to some industry sources, part of the MAX’s appeal was that it did not require costly simulator training. Again, the old question surfaces, if at all it is pertinent, what price safety?

It looks like the MAX will have to stay on the ground longer than expected.

Is the Boeing Max ready to fly?

Courtesy Boeing

Airlines looking forward to fly their fleet of Boeing B737 Max 8 aircraft have just got their planned schedules jiggered up by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)’s announcement that it may take up to a year before the jet is cleared again for commercial flights.

According to the BBC, FAA chief Daniel 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.”

It may be read that underlying this is the FAA’s understanding that time is needed to regain the world’s trust – in both the aircraft and the FAA as regulator. While Boeing seems ready to sign off the improved jet, saying it has finished updating the pertinent flight-control software, FAA in an apparent redeeming move following censure of its lax oversight is assuming control as the final authority to certify the jet’s safety.

According to Bloomberg, Mr Elwell added at a meeting with representation from across the globe, “If there is a crisis in confidence, we hope this will help to show the world that the world still talks together about aviation safety issues.”

In Boeing’s favour, some airlines have voiced their support of the Max. Understandably so, particularly if the airline owns a sizeable fleet of the jet. American Airlines (AA) for one is confident of an “absolute fix” but CEO Doug Parker was also quick to add, “But…it’s not for us to decide whether or not the aircraft flies. It needs to be safe for everyone.” The airline, which has a fleet of 24 Max jets, has cancelled thousands of flights and has now cancelled Max schedules through mid-August.

Another airline which has pledged its commitment to Boeing is Singapore Airlines (SIA). The airline is pledging its commitment to purchase 39 Dreamliner jets and its re-commitment for a previous order of 30 planes. Although this is not related to the Max aircraft of which its subsidiary SilkAir has six of them, it gives Boeing a boost of confidence after reports of shoddy production and poor oversight at the Boeing plant in North Charleston surfaced, and following grounding of some Dreamliner jets because of problems with the Rolls Royce Trent engine fitted to the aircraft.

Read also:

https://www.todayonline.com/commentary/grounding-boeing-max-and-dreamliner-planes-how-can-singapores-airlines-reassure-customers

It’s good to have friends, indeed. But while it’s not yet known if airlines such as AA and SIA have sought or will seek compensation from Boeing, others which have made known their intention include Norwegian Air Shuttle, Ryanair and the big three Chinese carriers of Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines. A strongly worded report from the Chinese Global Times newspaper said: “We must use punishment and tell the Americans their practice of using concealment and fraud to extract benefits from others, while benefiting themselves, is unfair.”