Boeing’s effort to get the 737 Max flying again has turned out to be “a much more ambitious project” than initially expected. That helps explain why the jetliner has remained grounded for more than a year, the Federal Aviation Administration’s chief said Wednesday.
Asked why the process has taken so long, FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson said the 737 Max’s entire flight control system – not just the software – has come under scrutiny. The overhaul has been complicated by the need to get the changes to work in conjunction with the plane’s redundancies and with other interdependent systems.
Dickson’s explanation cast new light on a process that Boeing initially hoped could be resolved with relatively quick software code rewrites by the end of last year. Instead, it has dragged on for close to 15 months since the plane was grounded in March 2019 following two fatal crashes in five months that killed 346 people. By December, Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who faced intense criticism over his handling of the 737 Max crisis, had resigned.
Faced with airlines having to cut back flight schedules before travel demand cratered after the coronavirus pandemic struck, the process of fixing the plane has dragged on.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, airlines had been eager to get the 737’s issues fixed and the planes back in the air in time for summer, traditionally one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
Dickson insisted recertification won’t be rushed: “We are not on any timeline. We are narrowing the issues,” he told the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation.
The 737 Max, the latest version of the workhorse jet, was grounded worldwide last year after two crashes, one a Lion Air flight and the other an Ethiopian Airlines flight, claimed 346 lives combined. In both cases, investigations pointed to the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, a pilot-assist program that repeatedly pushed the plane toward the ground as the crew wrestled to keep it aloft.
Dickson offered no new guidance as to when the Max will fly again.
Airlines have repeatedly pushed its return further into the year on their flight schedules as the recertification process has dragged on.
“The redesign of the airplane is not just limited to changing MCAS functionality,” Dickson said. “The entire flight control system – Boeing undertook this in the June-July time frame of last year – became a much more ambitious project.”
He added that the improvements are going forward “very diligently and very carefully.” And he said the process has not been delayed by work stoppages due to the pandemic.
Committees in both the House and Senate have been probing whether the FAA failed in its oversight responsibilities in the development of the jet.
Michael Stumo, whose daughter Samya Rose died in the Ethiopian Airlines crash, told the committee that “the first crash should not have happened. The second crash was inexcusable.” He added that the FAA seems more intent on pushing paper than taking responsibility for aircraft safety.
He called the 737 Max a flawed design from the start, saying it was an attempt to continue to update a 50-year-old design in a way that gave it aerodynamic flaws.
Senators complained that the FAA hasn’t cooperated with the panel.
Citing a record of “delay and non-responsiveness” to requests for information, Chairman Roger Wicker said. “It is hard not to conclude your team at the FAA has deliberately attempted to keep us in the dark.”
The Mississippi Republican said it appears the FAA is trying to hide damaging information from his committee.
“I can only assume that the agency’s stonewalling of my investigation only suggests discomfort with what might ultimately be revealed,” he said.
The FAA’s reticence to cooperate has been so bad that in one case, it wouldn’t turn over specific email exchanges between employees even when provided with the date and time in question, Wicker said.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, said the FAA hasn’t responded to any of his requests.
Dickson disputed the allegations.
“I believe it is inaccurate to portray the agency as unresponsive,” he said. He promised, though, to “redouble our efforts.”