The United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has concluded a meeting of some 60 regulators from 33 countries around the world by declaring there was no timetable for certifying the Boeing 737 MAX for a return to service.
The FAA met with its international counterparts on Thursday (US time) in Fort Worth, Texas for talks regarding the review of the software fix and pilot training changes that Boeing has proposed for the 737 MAX following two fatal crashes in October 2018 and March 2019.
The second accident, involving an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8, led to the worldwide grounding of the fleet.
And that grounding appears likely to remain in place for the months ahead, given updated flight schedules showed US-based airlines have left the 737 MAX out of their operations through July and August.
Boeing has submitted its software update and pilot training changes to the FAA.
Acting FAA Administrator Dan Elwell told reporters after the meeting in Fort Worth on Thursday that a return to service could be a month or two months, or even more, reiterating that the FAA had no set timeline for the aircraft to re-enter service.
“It’s taking as long as it takes to be right,” Elwell said.
“I’m not tied to a timetable. If it takes a year to find everything we need to give us the confidence to lift the [grounding] order so be it.”
Elwell said the return of the 737 MAX would be determined by what the FAA found in its analysis of Boeing’s submission, adding that it was “pretty confident that the application is in good shape”.
Boeing said in a statement following the meeting: “We appreciate the FAA’s leadership in taking this important step in bringing global regulators together to share information and discuss the safe return to service of the 737 MAX.”
“Our team, our airline customers, and regulators place the highest priority on the safety of the flying public.
“Once we have addressed the information requests from the FAA, we will be ready to schedule a certification test flight and submit final certification documentation.”
The 737 MAX was grounded after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX jet on March 10, the second crash of a MAX in less than five months. A Lion Air 737 MAX 8 plunged into the sea. The two accidents left 346 dead.
Boeing and the FAA were increasingly being put under the microscope over both the cause of the crash, and for the lack of information for pilots about an anti-stall feature added to the 737 MAX.
Safety regulators such as the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and other aviation bodies are gearing up for their own vetting process of the 737 MAX before giving the green light for the resumption of flights.
While the regulators were meeting in Fort Worth, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) was holding a private gathering of its own in Montreal, Canada to discuss the Boeing 737 MAX issue.
The private meeting was for IATA’s member airlines. Of its 290 member airlines, 28 had 737 MAX aircraft in their fleet.
Airlines attending that meeting, including American Airlines, United and Continental have so far remained tight-lipped on what was discussed. But some have publicly voiced safety concerns about the MAX after two fatal crashes.
“The meeting will provide a forum for airlines to exchange information about the experiences and challenges that they face as a result of the grounding and in their preparation for the reintroduction of the aircraft into operations,’’ IATA said last week.
On another front, the United States consumer protection activist and author, Ralph Nader, whose grand niece died in the Ethiopian Airlines March 10 crash, has called for a recall of all 737 MAX jets.
He said the issue was not about how much the software may “overpower the pilot” or “empower the pilot”.
“The basic problem is the design of the plane and there is no way you can fix that without recalling the plane, the way they recall cars,” he told CNBC.
Elwell responded that while he had “great respect” for Nader’s work on consumer product safety, his agency was the expert on whether or not to green light the MAX for service again.