Boeing may ask Congress to extend Max 10 exemption from safety rule |
DOMINIC GATES The Seattle Times
Multiple sources within the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing and Congress say the planemaker may not get the largest variant of the 737 Max, the Max 10, through FAA certification in time to meet a crucial deadline that , if not met, would trigger a new, stricter safety requirement – from which Boeing wants an exemption.
Missing the year-end deadline could mean having to significantly revamp the Max 10’s cockpit systems, an overhaul of the 737’s aging flight deck that the company previously said was unfeasible.
Although Boeing lobbyists have yet to formally request action from Congress, they will likely seek a legislative amendment that extends the deadline beyond Dec. 31, according to a company insider.
This would allow the Max 10, like previous Max models, to be certified without meeting the latest safety standard that governs the design of cockpit crew alerts that notify pilots of a system malfunction during flight. .
Boeing has lobbied Congress, expressing concern over the timing of the FAA’s certification of Max 10, which is the process of validating it as safe to fly passengers.
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In the meantime, an FAA safety engineer said the agency was “getting people in from other projects to come and help” on the Max 10 certification and make sure the FAA wasn’t accused of having delayed the process.
“They’re scrambling,” said the FAA engineer, who requested anonymity to protect his work.
Boeing has notified some airlines of the pending issue, including Max 10 launch customer United Airlines, which has more than 250 Max 10s on order.
If Boeing missed the deadline and was forced to upgrade the Max 10’s flight deck, its crew alerting system would work differently than the Max 8 and 9 models. Assuming it could be done, it would require a separate pilot training for the Max 10, an expense airlines don’t want.
In an interview, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate committee that helped draft the FAA reform law, indicated that — provided the FAA approves it — she is inclined to grant an extension to Boeing.
“If they want more time, that’s an FAA decision,” Cantwell said. “If the FAA says yes, we need another six months, give them six months. If everyone agreed, I would change the date.”
She said the FAA should perform a full safety assessment of the system, including assessing whether differentiating the cockpit of the Max 10 from other Max models could increase the risk for airlines with mixed fleets.
“Safety first. We’re not going to be rushed. We’re not going to be rushed,” Cantwell said. “I need the FAA to lead. I want to hear from them that this is what they think is the safest path.”
The FAA, in an emailed statement, said it could not discuss specific details about certification of the Max 10.
“We also will not speculate on any actions the plaintiff (Boeing) may take with respect to the timing of project completion,” the FAA said.
In a statement Tuesday, Boeing said “we continue to work transparently with the FAA to provide the information they need, and we are committed to meeting their expectations to achieve 737-10 certification.”
“Safety remains the driving factor in this effort,” Boeing added.
Initial Max models already exempted
Thursday is the third anniversary of Max’s crash in Ethiopia, the second of two Max crashes that killed 346 passengers and crew.
These accidents and the Max’s oversight failures prompted Congress to pass the Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act in late 2020 to reform the FAA’s oversight process.
This law requires any aircraft certified after Dec. 31 of this year to comply with the latest FAA crew alert regulations. The 737 is the only Boeing jet aircraft that does not meet the standard.
All other current Boeing aircraft are equipped with what is called an Engine Indication and Crew Alerting System, or EICAS, which complies with FAA regulations.
It is a centralized cockpit warning system that helps pilots differentiate, prioritize and respond to audible and visual warnings, cautions and alerts that activate during flight.
As required by regulations, it allows pilots to suppress erroneous warnings that may cause excessive distraction.
And it designates a hierarchy of alerts based on the severity of the problem, with the most urgent alerts drawing the crew’s attention through two different senses in a combination of audio, visual and tactile cues.
Boeing’s EICAS system not only tells pilots what’s wrong, but generally tells them what to do to get out of the situation.
But because the 737 cockpit inherited many systems from the original 1960s design, it’s difficult to update the plane to comply with these regulations.
In 2014, Boeing convinced the FAA to relax this specific safety standard for the Max.
Boeing relied on a special FAA rule to successfully argue that full compliance with the latest federal requirements would be “impractical” for the Max and cost too much.
Documents obtained by The Seattle Times outlining the argument Boeing then presented to the FAA show that its case was largely based on the long service history of the 737, which had by then accumulated more than 300 million hours in the air. on mainly routine and safe flights.
Boeing separately argued that it had corrected each of the separate crew alert issues that may have confused pilots in three fatal 737 crashes in the previous decade – the 2005 Helios Airways crash in Greece which killed 121 people; the 2008 Aeroflot-Nord crash in Russia, in which 88 people died; and the 2009 Turkish Airlines crash in the Netherlands with nine fatalities.
Boeing’s submission to the FAA cited an estimate of the cost of full compliance for the Max at “over $10 billion”. This was enough for the FAA to agree to grant the exemption.
A deadline is looming
The two initial models of the new family of jets, the Max 8 and the Max 9, have been certified accordingly. The new, smaller Max 7 model is currently undergoing flight testing and is expected to be certified later this year.
The Max 10 began flight testing last summer. But its certification is more complicated than previous Max models.
After Max’s two fatal crashes, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency has insisted that by the time this latest Max aircraft enters service, it must have an angle sensor system installed. improved attack that provides triple redundancy rather than double redundancy on previous models.
The angle of attack is the angle between the jet wing and the oncoming air. Incorrect measurement of this from a faulty sensor on each of the two crash flights triggered a new, poorly designed flight control system on the Max to force the planes to descend.
Boeing’s Max 10 upgrade includes new software in the flight control computer that provides a separate calculation of the angle of attack using various other independent data readouts from the two physical angle of attack sensors on the jet’s fuselage.
The Boeing insider, who requested anonymity to keep his job, said there was “no way” the company was certifying the Max 10 before the deadline.
“They still don’t have certification on the Max 7, and it’s pretty much the same plane as the Max 8 and Max 9,” the insider said. “Boeing is stuck. They need the law changed or the FAA accept an exemption for more time.”
Could extending the deadline be safer?
A separate Boeing insider said to get this change. Boeing lobbyists on Capitol Hill have “educated members of Congress and staff about the potential impacts” of missing the looming deadline, including potential job losses in Washington state if the Max 10 was not going forward.
The 2020 FAA reform legislation states that any aircraft certified two years after its enactment must have a fully compliant EICAS-style advanced crew alerting system.
This requirement was spurred by the two crash scenarios, when both crews were subjected to multiple annoying false alerts that likely contributed to the pilots losing control.
A person who helped draft the FAA Reform Act of 2020 said the intent was to ensure that all future aircraft designs meet the crew alert standard but, considering given the original FAA exemption, to pass the Max.
“The Max 10 was expected to be certified before the two-year deadline,” said the person, who asked not to be identified to continue his work on FAA reform in Congress.
“It wouldn’t require major legislation,” the person said, only an amendment to the date in the law.
The FAA safety engineer said “there may be good reason to grant the extension” for the Max 10.
On the one hand, he said, the Max 10’s new triple-redundant angle-of-attack system means the risk of multiple erroneous crew alerts that caused so much confusion in crash scenarios is now considerably reduced.
In this regard, the Max 10 should be safer than previous generation 737 models with their strong safety record, the engineer said.
Additionally, he said, changing the Max 10’s crew alerts would make the jet’s cockpit instrument system different from that of the Max 8 and 9, introducing potential confusion among airline pilots. like Alaska Airlines who ordered all three models.
A pilot can fly a Max 9 one day and a Max 10 the next. Confusion over different styles of alerts could create a higher risk than not upgrading the system and maintaining a common cockpit.
“If the FAA pilots are satisfied that the erroneous warnings are addressed by the Max 10 design, from an engineering perspective, I would be satisfied,” the engineer said.
“But it should be done through a formal public process,” he added, “not by lobbying behind the scenes.”