Boeing faces a crucial test this week as global regulators meet in Texas to determine when the grounded 737 Max aircraft will return to the air, after further revelations of problems with software used to train pilots to fly the aircraft.
The world’s largest commercial aircraft manufacturer revealed at the weekend that it had been forced to correct a flaw in the software of flight-training simulators that are meant to reproduce the flying conditions of the Max aircraft involved in two deadly crashes in the past six months.
The disclosure is a further blow to Boeing’s credibility, which has been seriously damaged by the two crashes, in which 346 people died. Subsequent disclosures of serious design flaws both in the Max’s anti-stall system, called the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), and errors involving other safety systems have further undermined the reputation of the Chicago-based company.
This Thursday, nine global aviation regulators, including those from China, the EU, Canada and Brazil, will meet to review Boeing’s application to get the Max back in the air. The aircraft maker has said it has completed work on a software fix aimed at preventing future disasters caused by the MCAS system.
But Boeing has said it is still answering questions from the US regulator, the Federal Aviation Administration, ahead of formally submitting the fix to the FAA. All of the nearly 400 Boeing 737 Max aircraft were grounded by global regulators after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 on March 10.
The FAA, which organised the Texas meeting, said it does not need the agreement of other regulators before it approves Boeing’s application. But officials say they want to avoid a repeat of what happened after the Ethiopian crash, when China grounded the aircraft before any other regulator and before analysing the flight data.
US officials said China’s action was premature and undermined confidence in the global system of aviation regulation, and they want to make sure countries worldwide act together when allowing the Max back into their airspace.
People close to the meeting of regulators said they do not think an official timetable will come out of it, but the FAA was likely to inform other regulators that it hoped to conduct a crucial certification flight for the software fix by the end of May or early June, with full FAA certification before the end of June. The FAA may be able to persuade Canadian and European regulators to adhere to that timetable, but China is expected to seek a delay.
Boeing said in a statement on Sunday: “We are providing the FAA and global regulators, as well as pilots and airlines, whatever information they need to restore their confidence in the MAX and safely return the aircraft to flight.”
On Saturday, Boeing said that software used on the Max training simulator was unable to reproduce some flight conditions, including the conditions which led to the crash of the Ethiopian flight. The preliminary crash report from the Ethiopian authorities revealed that the pilots of that flight were flying at relatively high speed and were unable to overcome the power of the MCAS system.
Additional reporting by Josh Spero