DALLAS – Boeing is up against a tight end-of-year deadline that surrounds the certification of the 737-10, the largest version of the MAX series.
Even though we’re still nine months away from that date, sources at Boeing, at the FAA, and in Congress say that meeting the December 31 deadline will be a challenge.
In a Seattle Times article today, a report notes that if the manufacturer misses the certification deadline, it would be required to “substantially revamp” cockpit systems, an action that Boeing calls “impractical.”
Those new system requirements call for a revised crew alerting system that would operate differently than those installed on the Boeing 737-8 and 9 aircraft.
In late 2020, Congress passed the Aircraft Safety and Certification Reform Act, which revamped the FAA oversight process (see more below). This action, of course, came about following the two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.
The law requires that any airplane certified after December 31 of this year complies with the latest FAA crew alert regulations. According to the Times, the 737 is the only Boeing plane that does not meet the standard.
This is because the 737 comes from designs made in the 1960s, making it difficult to update the aircraft to 21st century standards.
All other Boeing planes have the Engine Indicating and Crew Alerting System (EICAS), a centralized cockpit warning system that helps pilots “differentiate, prioritize, and respond to aural and visual warnings, caution, and alerts that activate during flight.” It lets pilots suppress incorrect warnings that could distract them from flying the plane.
It also puts forth a hierarchy of alerts that depends upon the seriousness of the event and alerts the pilots through multiple sensory warnings such as sound and visual or tactile cues.
The systems created by Boeing both tell the pilots what is wrong and what to do to correct the situation.
Redesigning the system on the Boeing 737-10 would require not only a massive engineering job by Boeing but also a mandate that airlines provide separate training for pilots, an expensive measure that the manufacturer and its airline customers hope to avoid.
However, it seems that all parties involved are working toward a solution that leads to safety and practicality.
FAA sources say that the agency is pulling people off of other projects to move forward with the certification process. The view is that the FAA does not want to be seen as the responsible party in delaying the program.
“They are scrambling,” said the FAA engineer, who asked for anonymity to protect his job.
The Times article quotes U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate committee that helped draft the FAA reform law. She indicated that — provided the FAA approves it — Congress would be inclined to grant an extension for Boeing.
Cantwell recognizes the safety problems inherent in airlines with a mixed fleet. Would operating two separate alert systems increase the risk?
“If they would like more time, this is an FAA decision,” Cantwell said. “Providing the FAA says yes, we need another six months, give them six months. If everybody was in agreement, I would change the date.”
The FAA says it’s not able to discuss details of the Boeing 737-10’s certification process. “Nor will we speculate about any actions (Boeing) might take with respect to a timeline for completing the project.”
In a statement on 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.”
An anonymous Boeing insider said there’s “no way” the company will certify the 737-10 by the deadline.
The Boeing 737-10 began certification flights last summer. But there are items that make the process more involved.
For instance, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has mandated that the plane have an upgraded angle of attack sensor system with triple redundancy, rather than the double redundancy found on previous models.
The Times also says that the Boeing 737-10 upgrade includes upgraded flight control computer software and an isolated calculation of the angle of attack using separate data that does not come from the two sensors on the aircraft’s fuselage.
It will take additional time for government regulators to approve these new systems.
In the past Boeing has argued via a special FAA rule that updating the MAX to be in compliance with the new regulation would be “impractical” and too expensive. The airline based its case, according to the Times, on the 737’s long and safe service history, over 300 million flight hours, on safe and routine flights.
Boeing also said that full compliance on the MAX might cost up to US$10bn. That alone was enough for the FAA to grant the exemption.
At this point, it seems that all parties are open to extending the deadline and moving forward together. Not only is it perceived as the “safest” route to follow, but all involved must consider the economic impact, too. Washington State could lose a large number of jobs if the MAX does not move forward.
Also, the variant is already a strong seller. Launch customer United Airlines (UA) has ordered 250 of the type.
The Reform Act
The website www.congress.gov says that, among other things, the Aircraft Reform and Accountability Act requires the FAA to:
- direct U.S. aircraft and aerospace industry manufacturers to adopt safety management systems consistent with international standards and practices;
- convene an expert panel to review organizations that design and produce transport airplanes and make recommendations for improvements;
- require manufacturers to disclose to the FAA certain safety-critical information related to an aircraft;
- conduct a comprehensive review of each manufacturing Organization Designation Authorization holder’s capability to meet FAA regulations based on the holder’s organizational structures, requirements applicable to officers and employees, and safety culture;
- establish an appeal process to review decisions regarding a manufacturer’s compliance with applicable design regulations;
- revise and improve its process of issuing amended type certificates for modifying an aircraft;
- initiate a call to action safety review of pilot certification standards in order to bring stakeholders together to share lessons learned, best practices, and implement actions to address any safety issues identified; and
- conduct an evaluation of tools and methods that support the better integration of human factors and system safety assessments of aircraft flight deck and flight control systems into the FAA’s certification process.
Featured image: Boeing 737-10 at Renton readying for first take-off. Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways