Less than a year after attracting a raft of orders at the 2018 Farnborough Air Show, Boeing’s 737 Max again takes center stage at this year’s Paris salon but under decidedly less happy circumstances. Following two high-profile crashes of the new narrowbody over the span of less than five months and a worldwide grounding that now has entered its fourth month, Boeing’s mission this year might center more on an effort to reinforce its reputation for engineering excellence and repair some battered credibility more than engaging in the traditional airshow marketing hype.
Boeing, in fact, might not have much choice in the matter. The 737 Max has seen its net order count decline this year and any sales splash at the Paris Air Show this week appears unlikely. Rather, the manufacturer will likely find itself fielding questions about when the airplane might fly again in revenue service and probably not giving many satisfactory answers. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration—itself under fire for a perceived failure to properly oversee the process of validating the function of the airplane's Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS)—has yet to offer any real timeline, so one can hardly expect Boeing to do so.
Speaking with reporters on Wednesday from his offices in Seattle, Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Kevin McAllister wouldn’t venture to guess on timing, but rather emphasized the company’s need to remain “humble” and fully engaged with the FAA and global authorities in the process. “We are actively engaged with all the regulators...at this point [expending] a lot of effort in responding to any of the questions they’ve got,” he said. “I think they're doing a very good job making sure they vet this very thoroughly and make sure they aggregate the questions that come [from] regulators from all around the world. But, obviously, [there is] no commitment on timing at this point. That’s entirely in their hands.”
While global airworthiness authorities collaborate to address the Max’s regulatory requirements, U.S. lawmakers early this month turned their attention to securing internal documents from Boeing and United Technologies relating to a faulty cockpit alert that indicates angle-of-attack sensor disagreement. Boeing in May acknowledged that early in the development of the 737 Max it failed to recognize that the planned alert would not work on airplanes not equipped with an optional AOA indicator.
The company said that once it knew of the problem, it determined that the absence of an AOA disagree alert did not compromise safety, giving it cause to accept the existing functionality until it could “delink” the alert and the indicator in the next planned display system software update. Now, congressional representatives want to know why Boeing did not tell airlines and the FAA that that feature did not come as standard equipment on the new model until the October 29, 2018 crash of Lion Air Flight 610—more than a year after its discovery of the problem.
Although acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell and FAA executive director for aircraft certification Earl Lawrence seemed to downplay the disagree alert’s significance, referring to it as more of a maintenance reporting feature than a safety imperative during a May congressional hearing, both expressed dissatisfaction with the time gap between Boeing’s recognition of the problem and the FAA coming to know of it.
McAllister, to his credit, acknowledged a breakdown in communication between Boeing and the FAA. “This is a case where we simply could have done a better job communicating on this angle-of-attack disagree,” he said. “I think that it’s something that we have to learn from, and we will have it as we bring the software forward on the 737 Max for return to service.”
Of course, at that time no one could have predicted that another 737 Max crash would occur in Ethiopia less than five months later under eerily similar circumstances and that China’s CAA (the CAAC) would become the first authority to ground the airplane. Like falling dominoes, the rest of the world’s regulators followed suit until the U.S. FAA finally had to acknowledge that enough “data-based” evidence existed to order its own grounding.
Since then, the FAA once again found itself defending against charges that its relationship with the companies it regulates has become too “cozy,” and that its reluctance to immediately ground the Max reflected undue deference to Boeing more than a hesitancy to act imprudently.
Now, international authorities no longer appear willing to reflexively defer to the FAA when determining aircraft airworthiness, reflecting the U.S. agency’s own loss of credibility and ironically inflicting a price on Boeing in the case of the Max. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), for one, vowed to perform its own review of Boeing’s software fix, and Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury has expressed concern about a “de-alignment” between the FAA and EASA.
“[We see] more scrutiny coming from all over the place. That is a fact of life we have to face,” he said during Airbus’s first-quarter earnings call with investment analysts. “The alignment of the FAA and EASA is a strong basis of our industry...and we hope that these events will not create a mid-term or long-term de-alignment between two main [certification] authorities in this industry.”
Elwell’s pointed comments about the safety criticality of the MCAS in front of the U.S. House aviation subcommittee might have begun to form a basis to repair the regulatory de-alignment Faury fears.
“As a pilot, as somebody who has devoted my entire life to flying and safety, I, at the beginning, when I first heard of this thought that the MCAS should have been more adequately explained in the ops manual...absolutely,” Elwell said when pressed on the issue by U.S. House Rep. Greg Stanton (D-Arizona).
McAllister, for his part, expressed a desire to rectify all missteps or oversights, whether they relate to flight controls, operations manuals, or training elements. “From my standpoint, I think our focus is on what we can do, what is our responsibility...what we can do to make sure this never happens again,” he said. “And for me, that is just a relentless focus on getting the software update right...I think the whole company’s focus is around owning what we could do better and owning the pieces of this that we’re responsible for and getting it right.”