Along with Boeing, Southwest pilots ask Congress to grant Max extension

Oct. 7—In a break with another large group of pilots, the president of the pilots’ union at Southwest Airlines said Friday that the airline’s 10,000 pilots are supporting Congress in granting Boeing the extension of time it needs to commission the latest two MAX models without modification of a safety alert system.

Describing the 737 MAX as “one of the safest planes to ever fly”, union president Casey Murray said the change in the cockpit of the new versions, MAX 7 and MAX 10, could confuse pilots who regularly switch from one model to another.

Earlier this week, the American Airlines Pilots Union expressed the opposite position.

The Allied Pilots Association, or APA, representing 15,000 pilots at American, opposed Congress giving the extension, without which Boeing would be required to upgrade cockpit systems on the 737 MAX 7 and MAX 10 models again. not certified.

In an interview on Friday, Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, or SWAPA, said Southwest has hundreds of MAX 7s on order and it would be safer to keep the cockpit of this plane the same as the MAX 8s. that his pilots fly today.

He said the fast pace of Southwest’s short-haul flight operations makes the similarity between the cockpits of the different models essential.

“Our pilots do multiple cycles a day. Some of our pilots can hit three or four or even five planes a day,” Murray said. “Switching from one to the other and back again is the problem. Having significant differences between planes can be confusing in times of high stress.”

APA this week explicitly rejected that argument, citing that American Airlines pilots routinely switch between Boeing 757 and 767 models “without any confusion.”

Murray said that although these two Boeing planes have differences in their cockpits, “they are longer range planes and the pilots don’t fly back and forth literally every hour like our pilots do.”

American Airlines currently uses the MAX 8, but does not have a MAX 7 or MAX 10 on order. Although Southwest needs to get the smaller MAX 7s for its fleet, Murray said his union’s position is “not in its own interest.”

“The community is our concern and we believe that makes the operation safer,” he said. “This is best for our pilots and for the traveling public.”

He said his union was lobbying Congress for Boeing’s extension.

“We’ve been active on the Hill on this,” Murray said, adding that the union has been working with, among others, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the Senate Commerce Committee chaired by Senator Maria Cantwell. , D-Wash.

Armed services committees will consider an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act tabled by Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss, that would extend the certification deadline.

Cantwell pushed the Federal Aviation Administration to offer Congress some guidance on the matter, and perhaps some policy cover, by ruling on the safety issue.

Murray suggested that was hardly necessary, since the FAA already approved the MAX’s return to service after Boeing repaired the flight control system that caused the two fatal crashes.

“Whatever version we’re talking about, the MAX has been back for quite some time. The MAX 8 has been successfully deployed and has flown tens of thousands of hours,” Murray said. “The MAX 7 is no different. It just got delayed.”

Decisive design role

The difference of opinion between these two large pilot groups makes the decision that awaits the Congress more complex.

And Southwest’s position as an airline, as well as that of its pilots’ union, is complicated by the carrier’s role as the MAX’s launch customer and the driver of Boeing’s decision to minimize changes to aircraft. jet cockpit systems.

From the earliest days of MAX development, Southwest lobbied Boeing to ensure that the MAX’s cockpit would look exactly like the previous model’s so that, to qualify to fly the new version, its pilots would only need a few hours of training on an iPad.

This is why the MAX’s crew alert system was not upgraded in the first place.

Indeed, Southwest exerted exactly the same pressure in previous years when Boeing developed earlier 737 models.

Peter Lemme, a former Boeing flight control engineer, said that without Southwest’s insistence, Boeing could have improved the 737’s flight deck as early as the 1980s.

When the all-new 757 was developed and built at the same Renton plant, it was designed with a modern engine indication and crew alerting system, known as EICAS, which alerts pilots in the event of a problem in flight.

This system meets the standard in the latest safety regulations. In 1984, two years later, Boeing introduced the 737-300, but did not upgrade the crew alert system to match the 757.

“The reason was Southwest Airlines,” Lemme said. “It wasn’t really Boeing. It was the airlines that said no.”

And the South West Pilots Union’s current position on the MAX contrasts sharply with that expressed after the two MAX crashes that killed 346 people and grounded the plane worldwide for nearly two years.

In 2019, SWAPA sued Boeing for misleading its pilots during the initial certification of the MAX.

“Boeing’s misrepresentations led SWAPA to believe the 737 MAX aircraft was safe,” the lawsuit says. “These representations have been proven to be false.”

This trial is still pending.

However, with Boeing having fixed the flight control system – the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS – that caused pilots to lose control in both crashes, SWAPA’s Murray said on Friday he now has ” 100% confidence in the MAX range of aircraft”. .”

Murray said he fully supports the intent of the 2020 legislation – the Aircraft Certification, Safety and Liability Act – to require all future aircraft to be fitted with an aircraft warning system. EICAS-type crew, which he called a “technological advancement”.

But for the MAX, he says, it’s safer to keep it as is.

Even though Lemme regrets that Boeing didn’t upgrade the crew alert system on the 737 cockpit years ago, he agrees with Murray that it’s now too late to change it just for MAX 7 and 10 – and that it would be safer not to.

“Leave them alone,” he said. “It could have been better. But this ship sailed when they designed the MAX the way they did.”

Echoing Murray, Lemme said it would be less safe to have different systems in the different MAX models.

“It only takes one crew to get confused. It’s a recipe for disaster,” Lemme said. “What’s the basis for forcing a change? It’s just feeling good at this point.”

He said it was the faulty MCAS system that made the cascade of false alerts on the two crash flights catastrophic. With MCAS corrected, he added, crew alerting MAX shortcomings are no longer as dangerous.

Leaving aside the engineering flaws of the original MAX version, Lemme said “the safety ratings of the Airbus A320 and the Boeing 737 are roughly the same. Both are extremely safe designs.”

With conflicting opinions coming from pilot groups around the country, these are the arguments that Congress must now weigh.

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