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With 2 MAX models at risk, Congress moves to give Boeing a break

By Dominic Gates, The Seattle Times
Published: September 30, 2022, 8:42am

The Federal Aviation Administration sent a high-level letter to Boeing this month warning that the documents the manufacturer has provided for certification of the 737 MAX 7 model are wholly inadequate — making it unlikely that MAX 7 certification will be completed by a year-end deadline.

Political action has begun in Congress, however, to provide Boeing the time and leeway it needs to complete the safety assessment documentation.

A Republican senator on Thursday filed an amendment to a pending bill that would grant Boeing the extension it will need to get both the Renton-built MAX 7 and MAX 10 certified without any further design changes.

The MAX 7 is the smallest model in Boeing’s new 737 MAX family of jets. The FAA warned Boeing in March that the largest model, the MAX 10, is also unlikely to meet the deadline.

FAA’s scathing letter to Boeing

The deadline looming over Boeing is embedded in the Aircraft Certification, Safety and Accountability Act passed by Congress in December 2020 after two deadly MAX crashes. In light of the failures in the original certification of the MAX, the law was designed to reform the FAA oversight process.

It also laid out more stringent design standards for future airplanes — but allowed a two-year time frame for compliance, with the expectation that Boeing would have achieved certification of all the MAX planes by then.

The law requires any airplane certified after Dec. 31 of this year to comply with the latest FAA safety regulation mandating what kind of alerts pilots receive when something goes wrong in flight. The 737 jet family is the only Boeing jet that doesn’t meet that latest safety standard.

Pressed by European and Canadian aviation regulators, Boeing agreed to two system enhancements that will be introduced on the MAX 10 that significantly improve the crew alerting system. However, the model still doesn’t meet the latest FAA standard.

Two prior models, the MAX 8 and MAX 9, have already been certified and are in service flying passengers. But the MAX 7 and MAX 10 are not yet certified and, the FAA indicates, now have little chance of meeting the year-end deadline.

The Sept. 19 letter was sent by Lirio Liu, executive director of aviation safety at the FAA’s Aircraft Certification Service, to Mike Fleming, the Boeing senior vice president in charge of the 737 MAX return to service.

A series of FAA letters critical of Boeing’s progress on providing safety documentation were sent between lower-level officials. This one was top level.

Liu began by reminding Fleming that the FAA had told Boeing it was to have turned in all remaining System Safety Assessment, or SSA, documentation for the MAX 7 by mid-September to meet the target deadline of certification in December.

“As of September 15, just under 10 percent of the SSAs have been accepted by the FAA and another 70 percent of these documents are in various stages of review and revision,” Liu then wrote. “Most concerning, however, is that Boeing has yet to provide an initial submittal for six of the outstanding SSAs.”

“Many of these documents will take significant time to review due to their complexity and bearing on the overall safety of the new aircraft,” Liu concluded. “I look forward to continuing our discussions about realistic time frames for receiving the remaining documents.”

Sen. Wicker’s amendment

If Boeing misses the deadline without a congressional extension it would have to redesign and upgrade the MAX’s crew alerting system.

Boeing has lobbied Congress, arguing that maintaining commonality between the MAX crew alerting systems and those on the prior 737 NG models would be safer than upgrading the MAX systems.

It contends that pilots at airlines flying both the older and newer 737 models, including Alaska Airlines and Southwest, could move from one plane to the other without any confusion about different cockpit systems.

“A common, consistent operational experience across the 737 MAX family … ultimately benefits flight crews by enhancing safety and reducing risk,” Boeing said in an April statement.

Some in Congress are now moving to grant Boeing what it wants.

According to two people closely familiar with the details, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, this week sent a letter to the FAA asking the agency for an estimate of how much extra time Boeing would need if it fails to meet the deadline.

And on Thursday, one of those people and a third person familiar with the details said Wicker filed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would give Boeing the extension it needs.

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All three sources requested anonymity because they were not officially authorized to speak about the details of Wicker’s letter and his amendment.

Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., chair of the Armed Services Committee, had requested all amendments to that bill be filed by Thursday.

Wicker’s amendment is understood to be a placeholder. It stipulates a new date of Sept. 30, 2024, before compliance with the crew alerting standard would become a requirement.

That date could be modified later in the legislative process when the House weighs in.

Will Congress give Boeing what it wants?

It’s unclear which way Congress might swing if and when an extension for Boeing comes to a vote.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the commerce committee, has said she is open to whatever course of action the FAA deems safest: either to demand the redesign of the MAX cockpit systems or to maintain commonality with the 737 NG.

In the U.S. House, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., chair of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, came out firmly against granting Boeing an extension.

The families of the 346 victims of the two 737 MAX crashes, in which the cacophony of crew alerts played a significant role, are also staunchly opposed to giving Boeing more time and want those systems upgraded.

And in March, two technical experts and whistleblowers — ex-FAA safety engineer Joe Jacobsen and ex-Boeing flight control engineer Curtis Ewbank — presented a detailed proposal to Cantwell’s Senate committee on how the 737 MAX cockpit could be upgraded to current design standards while limiting the extra costs.

Stakes are high for Boeing and for its Renton workforce that builds the MAX.

On Thursday, Boeing announced another substantial order for the MAX 10 after WestJet of Canada ordered 42, worth about $2.3 billion, according to an estimate by aircraft valuation firm Avitas.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun even said in July that rather than upgrade the systems, he might cancel the MAX 10 if an extension isn’t granted.

Now that threat would also have to include the MAX 7.