U.S. might approve the 737 MAX to fly — but will the world follow?
The Federal Aviation Administration may be close to letting Boeing’s 737 MAX back in the skies — but it’s not clear the rest of the world is ready to follow.
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Six months after the U.S. was the last major country to ground the MAX following two fatal crashes, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency is saying it will not simply accept the FAA’s determinations about returning the plane to service — and it wants its own pilots and engineers on board test flights. In recent days, India and the United Arab Emirates have set their own conditions as well.
The demands are a departure from decades of international aviation practices, in which other nations’ regulators typically deferred to the FAA and its approvals of U.S. planes. And they’re a further sign that the United States’ once-preeminent role in aviation safety may have suffered lasting damage.
The two 737 MAX disasters killed a combined 346 people and provoked new scrutiny of the FAA’s growing practice of delegating regulatory work to companies like Boeing. In the case of the 737 MAX, lawmakers have questioned whether the agency was even aware of a crucial change to the plane’s software that allowed the aircraft to send itself into fatal dives over Indonesia and Ethiopia.
Boeing has said it expects the plane to be back in service, at least in some places, starting in the fourth quarter of this year, and the FAA could perform a certification flight as soon as next month. But Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg acknowledged last week that the plane could face a “phased ungrounding,” in which it would be allowed to fly in some countries but not others.
Such an outcome would deal a huge financial blow to Boeing and create headaches for airlines worldwide that have purchased the jet but can’t use it. That’s not to mention the logistical nightmare of attempting to fly the plane through a hodgepodge of restricted airspace.
It also has the potential to rip open other agreements among nations that keep global aviation moving — from pilot training standards to airplane seats.
EASA leader Patrick Ky said in early September that once the FAA determines the plane is safe to fly again, “it’s very likely that international authorities will want a second opinion, or a third opinion.”
“That was not the case one year ago,” he added.
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Guillaume Faury, the CEO of Boeing’s rival manufacturer Airbus, attributed the shift to a “break of trust on the FAA process that has enabled this situation.”
“The FAA has to go through it and regain credibility and trust,” he said in an interview with POLITICO. “I believe EASA running its own process and at a given point in time coming to its own conclusion will help regaining trust of the FAA, provided the FAA does what they have to do and improve their processes.”
The U.S. agency discounted the idea of a rift, saying in a statement that is “has a transparent and collaborative relationship with other civil aviation authorities as we continue our review of changes to software on the Boeing 737 MAX.”
“Each government will make its own decision to return the aircraft to service based on a thorough safety assessment,” the FAA added. “It’s common for aviation authorities to conduct test flights of new aircraft and major derivatives that other civil aviation authorities certificate.”
The FAA is making no promises about when the 737 MAX might return to the skies. Administrator Steve Dickson said last month that it won’t “fly in commercial service again until I am completely assured that it is safe to do so.”
“The FAA is not following any timeline for returning the aircraft to service,” Dickson said at the time. “Rather, we’re going where the facts lead us and diligently ensuring that all technology and training is present and correct before the plane returns to passenger service.”
But Ken Button, a professor at George Mason University focused on international transportation, said Boeing and the FAA both shot themselves in the foot with their “slow reaction” in October, when the first crash of a MAX jet near Jakarta, Indonesia, killed 189 people. The FAA issued an order about pilot procedures after that accident but allowed the MAX to continue to fly until March, when another crash near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, killed 157.
“This is going to take a little bit of time to get over,” Button said.
The first to ground the jet after the Ethiopia crash was China, which has had an increasingly fraught relationship with the United States on a host of issues, including President Donald Trump’s trade sanctions and U.S. accusations of spying by the telecom manufacturer Huawei. Beijing could respond by connecting decisions on the MAX to the outcome of the trade war, aviation industry analyst Bob Mann noted.
“They’re one of the big buyers of the airplane, one of the big operators of the airplane, so I don’t know why they wouldn’t,” Mann said. “It’s a lever.”
Boeing and the FAA still face a host of questions about the plane, after the two crashes triggered about a dozen reviews and investigations into the jet and the agency’s certification process. Several of those reviews are focused on an automated flight control feature called MCAS, which appears to have repeatedly steered the planes downward in a way the pilots couldn’t correct, and questions about how thoroughly the FAA scrutinized the system before approving the plane in 2017. The FAA is under intense scrutiny for having delegated much of the certification work, including some safety-critical functions on the MAX, to Boeing.
As the initial questions from the two air disasters began to swirl in March, countries began grounding the MAX ahead of the United States, shaking global trust in the FAA. But what had initially seemed like a temporary bruise on the FAA now looks like a scar.
In May, the FAA invited other regulators to Texas to show its plan for evaluating fixes by Boeing. At the time, the FAA seemed hopeful that the fleet could be returned to service around the same time across the world.
Since then, the timeline for the MAX’s return to service has repeatedly slipped.
“It’s an open question,” Ky, the leader of the European aviation agency, said this month. “When we discussed [it] with the FAA in April, they told us it would be returned to service in May. Later on, we were every time delaying by one month. Honestly, it would be impossible for me to give you any timeline because we want to do it right — in particular the training requirements” for pilots.
On Tuesday, Reuters reported that Dickson has invited about 50 foreign regulators to Montreal to attend a briefing on the plane.
Typically, determinations by the FAA do not receive an exacting level of global scrutiny.
For instance, the world followed suit in 2013 when the United States grounded the Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet over concerns about its lithium-ion batteries catching fire in flight. And when the United States decided three months later that it was time for the planes to fly again, the EU followed the U.S. lead, with EASA noting only that it was “working closely with the FAA as the primary certification authority and Boeing.”
The level of additional scrutiny other countries are now insisting on is “unique,” Mann said. “And I think it’s the unfortunate result of the drip, drip, drip, drip, drip of information” about the MAX and its certification, he added.
Some industry-watchers say the damage to the FAA’s reputation won’t be permanent. And even Ky acknowledged that skepticism can go only so far without bogging down the global aviation industry, which is important to the economies of virtually every industrialized nation.
The FAA has “very strong ethics,” Ky said, adding that “we need to work with them. We do not want to enter into an area where we would systematically re-certify all Boeing aircraft — because [then the FAA] will do the same” with European products.”
Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), who chairs the House Transportation Aviation Subcommittee, said he thinks the FAA remains the world’s gold standard, even though his own panel is conducting a thorough scrub of the agency and its processes following the MAX crashes.
“If I have to choose between the FAA making that return-to-service decision or another country’s agency, I’ll pick the FAA,” Larsen said.
He added that he thinks the European agency may be “trying to establish itself more in global certification.”
Jeff Guzzetti, a consultant who once worked for the FAA, the Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board, argued that it was too soon to judge the extent of any lasting damage while the crash investigations are still ongoing.
“There may be some surprises once both investigations are completed with regards to just how much of a role the design played and also with the philosophical discussion about just how foolproof does an airplane have to be built,” Guzzetti said.
Saim Saeed contributed to this report.
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