Regulatory Scrutiny Still Slowing Boeing’s Certification Efforts

 - June 17, 2022, 3:23 PM
Boeing staged a display of its entire 737 Max family on June 14 in Seattle. (Photo: Ellen Banner/The Seattle Times)

A stricter regulatory environment resulting from the twin fatal crashes of the Boeing 737 Max in 2018 and 2019 undoubtedly has slowed certification progress on the latest variants, the Max 7 and Max 10. But recent U.S. legislation that requires a modern crew alerting system in new aircraft certified after next January 1 perhaps presents the most pressing concern for Boeing, which must demonstrate to the FAA that the current cockpit configuration in the Max 10 ensures an equivalent level of safety to aircraft with an engine indicating and crew alerting system (EICAS). If the Max 10 does not gain certification by the end of the year, Boeing will need to get an exception to extend the effective deadline or face the prospect of redesigning the avionics system to include an EICAS, which would cost it not only valuable time but erode the commonality between variants so valued by airline customers.

Addressing reporters during one of a series of briefings held in the Puget Sound area last week, Boeing vice president for the 737 Max return to service Mike Fleming expressed satisfaction with the performance of the airplane during flight testing. He noted that program members had nearly completed all engineering test points and nearly finished performance testing as well as testing of the new, heavier main landing gear. Crews have also flight-tested an enhanced angle-of-attack system on both test aircraft following the completion of various test points in the company’s engineering cab.  

Fleming conceded, however, that whether or not the airplane gains type inspection authorization (TIA) in time for certification by the end of the year rests with the FAA’s approval of development assurance work, during which Boeing needs to complete items such as fault hazard analysis. “Once we get that information and provide it to the regulator and we get their buy-in, they’ll typically grant type inspection authorization, then we’ll go fly the airplane,” he explained, adding that the company has gotten “roughly halfway through” the process.

Despite the time pressure that resulted from the legislation known as the Aircraft Certification, Safety, and Accountability Act (ACSAA), Fleming stressed that Boeing will not rush through any of the required steps. Addressing a question about whether he personally thought Boeing would win certification by the end of the year, he answered, “it’s indeterminate.” Neither would he identify a time for when Boeing might have to ask for an extension of the cutoff date.

“I think, personally, this will sort itself out because we’re all trying to do the right thing,” said Fleming, referring to Boeing, the FAA, and Congress. “We believe the 737 is safe. We believe the crew alerting is safe. We believe the commonality is one of the key safety features of our family of the 737 airplane.”

The Boeing v-p did characterize the new regulatory regime as a challenge, however. “It’s taking longer to get approval on our documents than it has in the past,” he conceded. “There’s no secret about that. I think there’s a level of rigor on both sides in terms of going through these documents and making sure that we’ve got everything that’s in there. And I think that’s what makes it a little bit of a challenge for both us and the FAA…We’re sort of learning as we go here on all sides.”

Of course, the more rigorous regulatory processes have not only affected the Max. The troubled 777X widebody, for example, won’t gain certification before 2025, some five years later than originally planned, due largely to the changes. However, Fleming wouldn’t attribute the delays solely to the new regulatory regime, adding that “different issues” had arisen. Although he did note the problems discovered with the GE9X engines in 2019 as one factor, he discussed few details for the latest of now four separate delays other than “technical things and documentation issues.”

Asked about a flight control problem on December 8, 2020, that led to an uncommanded pitch event, Fleming insisted the crew maintained control during the entire incident and that the company quickly understood the nature of the problem and solved it with a software change.

“There are always issues that you find on the airplane, any airplane, even after they're certified, and you go through the test program and you find things, and that's why you conduct test programs—to make sure that you go out and you find things,” he said.

“So I don't want to give anybody the impression here that we're pointing fingers at the regulatory process as being all driver of what's happening here…I would tell you that when moved the airplane program, it wasn’t just the regulatory environment. It did have to do with our ability to complete some of the work that we needed to do in that environment on the processes.”

Separately, Fleming reported that the smallest member of the 737 Max family, the Max 7, had completed flight testing last year but that Boeing continues to conduct documentation work to satisfy the ACSSA legislation.  “We’re in the process of working through all of the documentation requirements to provide the FAA,” he noted. “Service ready activity is already underway and by virtue of the fact that it’s nearly identical to the 737-8 and -9, we expect it to go into service and perform just like [those airplanes].”