FAA Chief Personally Tests the 737 MAX

The troubled aircraft could return to the skies before the end of 2020—with fixes and upgrades.

FAA chief Steve Dickson took the captain’s chair of a 737 MAX on September 30, 2020, conducting a two-hour test flight—fulfilling a promise that he wouldn’t consider recertifying the aircraft until he flew one himself.

“I liked what I saw,” said Dickson, a former commercial and military pilot who has actually flown the 737 in the past. “It was important to me to experience firsthand the training and the handling of the aircraft so I can have the most complete understanding possible as we move forward with this process,” he added, referring to his taking the new training that MAX pilots will be required to complete as part of the jet’s return to service.

And while his flight wasn’t part of the official testing process, it’s a positive sign that the controversial aircraft could soon see a return to service—perhaps even by the end of the year. “That doesn’t mean I don’t have some debrief items for the Boeing team and FAA team,” Dickson said. “I have some observations that I’m going to share with them. That’s going to be incorporated into the process going forward.”

That process looks to be coming to a conclusion. Recently, American, European and Canadian regulators completed their own battery of tests, including having test pilots force the aircraft into dives and tight turns. These actions were intended to recreate scenarios that triggered the 737 MAX’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software—the anti-stall measures that were triggered at the wrong time due to faulty sensor readings, causing two fatal crashes in less than six months. The entire global fleet of MAX aircraft has been grounded as a result.

FAA chief answers questions after his test flight.

Not Everyone Wants the MAX Recertified Yet

While Dickson appears to be cautiously optimistic about the aircraft’s fixes and upgrades, that view isn’t shared by everyone.

One of the fixes proposed by Boeing involves installing an additional angle-of-attack (AOA) sensor on the aircraft, bringing the total number of AOA sensors to two, to reduce the risk of the flight software reacting to faulty sensor readings. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is demanding that Boeing take this a step further, and has asked that a third AOA sensor be installed. This third sensor would calculate the angle of attack independently of the other two and input its own readings into the flight software. The third sensor would be introduced in the 737-10, the newest and largest variant of the aircraft that has yet to enter service, as well as be retrofitted on older models.

EASA also wants Boeing to allow pilots to disable stick-shaker stall warnings—echoing recommendations made by several pilot unions and representatives during the FAA’s public consultation on its proposed fixes.

“In the event that a stick shaker indication is triggered erroneously, it can be difficult for flight crew to be able to conduct actions imperative to continued safe flight,” said the Air Line Pilots Association. “In these rare instances, the nuisance stick shaker may serve to reduce safety, rather than enhance it.”

Other parties have also expressed concerns that the FAA and Boeing aren’t doing enough to fix the MAX’s problems. Boeing senior engineer and whistleblower Curtis Ewbank, who spoke in detail to Congress during its investigation of the aircraft, said the FAA’s proposed fixes didn’t address all the hazards identified in the investigation. “Clearly more actions are required to revise FAA processes so that it accurately assesses airplane design and regulates in the public interest,” he said.

And Robert Bogash, a retired Boeing engineer who says he worked on the 737 and has been involved in accident investigations, has said that taking actions such as limiting the aircraft’s weight and balance could help avoid the problems that MCAS software was supposed to compensate for. This could render the problematic software entirely irrelevant.

In addition, over 2,000 people who lost family members in the fatal crashes advocated for a more thorough, and more independent, review of the jet. They claimed that the FAA’s fix-it list doesn’t really fix enough. “The software updates and revised procedures are no more than a mitigation strategy, because they fail to address the root cause of the problem,” they said.

The FAA has said it would seriously consider all the feedback it received during its public consultation but declined to respond to specific recommendations.

Dickson wouldn’t commit to a date for recertification after his test flight. “We’re in the home stretch, but that doesn’t mean we’re going to take shortcuts to get it done by a certain date,” he said. However, American Airlines—which operates a large fleet of MAX jets—has already started scheduling training for its pilots in November and aims to finish by January 2021. This could mean that at least one major MAX client anticipates a return to service soon.

Changes Coming to FAA Oversight?

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure is bringing forward legislation that would significantly alter the way the FAA works with plane makers to oversee aircraft safety.

In the past, the FAA has allowed Boeing staff to conduct safety assessments on behalf of the agency under its Organization Designation Authorization program. But the program has been widely criticized for allowing the aerospace giant to inappropriately influence the certification process. In fact, the FAA has already proposed a $1.25 million fine on Boeing earlier this year for violating program rules.

The proposed legislation wouldn’t do away with the program, but rather strengthen FAA oversight and give it more authority over who Boeing and other companies assign the work to. The FAA would gain the authority to hire or fire Boeing employees tasked with FAA certification work and allow the agency to appoint safety advisers. Aviation companies support the program, claiming that they need more authority to approve designs so that they can remain competitive.

The bill would also compel manufacturers to adopt better safety management systems, revamp pilot training programs to reflect more realistic behavior in emergency situations, and mandate that plane makers disclose any flight control system that could alter a plane’s flight path—a clear response to Boeing’s widely criticized decision to not include the MCAS in its pilot training materials.

Another bill, being considered by the Senate Commerce Committee, would strengthen protections for airline industry whistleblowers by creating an FAA Ombudsman office and an Office of Professional Responsibility. It would also “bolster misconduct investigations and discipline management to enhance accountability” within the FAA—which could help improve the agency’s reputation, which has been tarnished by the 737 MAX debacle.

While we could see the 737 MAX recertified as early as November, it’s clear that the story won’t end there. The crisis created by the grounding of this popular aircraft has sent shockwaves through the global aviation industry. Changes in manufacturing, regulatory oversight and pilot training are likely to continue long after a MAX takes flight with passengers again. And the lessons learned—the hard way—after the two crashes are sure to redefine the way the industry operates.

Read more about the FAA’s requirements for the 737 MAX’s return to service at More Details on the FAA’s Fix-It List for the 737 MAX.