FAA Lifts Grounding Order for Boeing 737 Max

 - November 18, 2020, 9:09 AM
A Lion Air Boeing 737 Max 8 sits in storage in Moses Lake, Washington. The first of two fatal crashes of the Max involved a Lion Air jet on October 29, 2018. (Photo: Barry Ambrose)

The FAA has lifted its grounding order for the Boeing 737 Max and published an airworthiness directive (AD) specifying needed design changes and new training requirements for the airplane, the agency announced Wednesday. Although FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed an order that provides a pathway for the Max to resume commercial service, the agency stressed that its actions do not allow the Max to return immediately to the skies, adding that it must approve pilot training program revisions for each U.S. Max operator and certify each airplane for delivery. Meanwhile, airlines that have parked their Max aircraft must perform various maintenance tasks to prepare them to fly again.

Along with addressing new training requirements and software improvement, the AD requires completing wire separation modifications and accomplishing what Boeing called de-preservation activities to ensure the airplanes’ readiness for service.

American Airlines plans to become the first U.S. carrier to return the airplane to service, according to schedules calling for a December 29 flight from Miami to LaGuardia Airport in New York.

In addition to the publication of the AD, the FAA issued a Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community (CANIC) outlining pending safety actions.

Separately, the FAA will retain its authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates for all new 737 Max airplanes manufactured since the grounding and perform in-person, individual reviews of each aircraft.

According to retired Boeing designated engineering representative (DER) and FAA organization designation authorization (ODA) administrator Mike Borfitz, those reviews will require the FAA to commit far more resources to delivery authorizations than usual given that regulations allow for ODA personnel to release the airplanes for delivery in normal circumstances. Inspectors will have to conduct a review of manufacturing records, including approved corrective actions for deviations in materials or processes and a thorough review of the more critical design changes such as software revision levels.

For its part, Boeing on Wednesday said it has taken three important steps to strengthen its focus on safety and quality, apart from the airplane’s physical design changes and pilot training revisions. First, the company has brought together more than 50,000 engineers in a single organization that includes a new Product & Services Safety unit, unifying safety responsibilities across the company. Next, it said, it has further “empowered” engineers to identify, diagnose, and resolve problems with a higher level of transparency and immediacy. Finally, the company said it has adopted so-called next-generation design processes meant to ensure higher levels of “first-time quality.”

According to a Department of Transportation Inspector General’s report issued in July, Boeing failed to submit certification documents to the FAA on modifications to the 737 Max jet’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), including significantly increasing the system’s ability to lower the aircraft’s nose automatically under certain conditions. A malfunction of the MCAS led to the twin crashes in October 2018 and March 2019 that killed 346 people and the Max’s 20-month grounding by global aviation authorities.

The IG report noted that FAA flight test personnel knew of the change to the MCAS, but “key” agency certification engineers and personnel responsible for approving the level of airline pilot training told the IG’s office they did not.

The report also revealed that because Boeing’s safety analysis did not assess system-level safety risks as catastrophic, the company’s engineers designed MCAS to rely on data from a single aircraft sensor. Although Boeing did not communicate to the FAA the formal safety risk assessments related to MCAS until November 2016 and January 2017, more than four years into the five-year certification process, FAA managers told the IG’s office that “it isn’t unusual” for manufacturers to complete and submit safety assessments toward the end of the certification process.

Meanwhile, because Boeing presented the software as a modification to the 737’s existing speed trim system that would activate only in limited conditions, the FAA did not emphasize MCAS in its certification efforts and, therefore, a more detailed review of the system did not occur between agency engineers and Boeing. Rather, the FAA concentrated its efforts on what it considered high-risk areas such as the airplane’s larger engines, fly-by-wire spoilers, and landing gear changes.

In comments published in the appendix of the IG report, the FAA conceded that its oversight suffered from a lack of effective communication, not only between Boeing and the agency but within the agency itself, “which led to an incomplete understanding of the scope and potential safety impacts of changes to the flight control system.”