Boeing crisis deepens further as 737 MAX delays drag on


FAA officials believe that it could take until late January for the agency to lift the grounding and approve training requirements for pilots. It would then take weeks for airlines to prepare MAX jets to operate commercial routes.

Meanwhile, US Congress, following a hearing last month where it grilled Boeing’s chief executive, Dennis Muilenburg, is planning to hold a hearing next month at which it expects FAA officials to testify about whether there are other problems with the MAX that Boeing hasn’t addressed.

The nagging uncertainty over the plane’s future has cast a pall over Boeing, the largest manufacturing exporter in the United States and has shaved 15 per cent of the company’s value since March.

“It’s becoming increasingly clear that they’re not going to get it sorted out this year,” said Scott Hamilton, managing director of the Leeham Co., an aviation consultancy. “I would be completely flabbergasted if the airplane does not get recertified, but I’ve been flabbergasted on more than one occasion.”

Boeing said it was following the lead of the FAA and global regulators. “They will determine when key milestones are achieved and when the fleet and training requirements are certified so the MAX can safely return to service,” Gordon Johndroe, a company spokesman, said in a statement.

Any further delays could have profound consequences for Boeing and its customers, which have ordered some 5,000 MAX jets.

Earlier this year, Boeing executives suggested that if the grounding persisted beyond this year, the company would consider shutting down the MAX production line. Such a move would have enormous economic consequences, most likely resulting in sweeping job losses at Boeing and many of its suppliers.

Effects will linger for years

Yet even if the MAX does return to the skies early next year and Boeing avoids shutting down the production line, the grounding’s effect will linger for years. Airlines have had to cancel routes and slow expansion plans. Boeing has a backlog of hundreds of planes to deliver, a process that could take more than a year.

And global aviation regulators, which have historically deferred to the FAA, are already exerting more independence. The European Union Aviation Safety Agency recently said it would take a more proactive role in evaluating Boeing’s next jet, the 777X.

Politicians in Washington are also continuing their investigation into Boeing and the FAA. The House transportation committee plans to hold another hearing on the regulator’s approval of the MAX in early December, calling the head of the FAA, Stephen Dickson, and potentially other senior leaders at the regulator to testify, according to three government officials familiar with the plans.

“There’s so many things that could happen. It’s not in Boeing’s hands.

Richard Aboulafia, aviation analyst at the Teal Group

Members of the committee plan to grill the officials on how they initially determined the plane’s safety and what actions they took between the first fatal crash, off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018, and the second, in Ethiopia in March.

They will also ask about issues unrelated to the software that contributed to both accidents, including the design of rudder cables on the MAX. In July, The New York Times reported that before the MAX was approved in 2017, managers at the FAA had sided with Boeing over their own safety experts, who wanted the manufacturer to make the cables more redundant to avoid a potentially catastrophic failure. Boeing argued that a failure was so unlikely that a change was unnecessary.

On Tuesday, the FAA informed Boeing that the agency would inspect every MAX and determine whether each plane is ready for flight. In the past, Boeing has been able to make that determination without the FAA reviewing the jets individually. It was the latest setback for Boeing in a halting monthslong effort to return the MAX to service.

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“We welcome and embrace this decision by the FAA,” said Boeing spokesman Johndroe. “Safety is our No. 1 priority.”

Boeing is facing multiple challenges beyond the MAX crisis as well. Its next widebody jet, the 777X, is delayed. The 787 Dreamliner program is plagued by production problems at its North Charleston, South Carolina, factory. And the KC-46, a refuelling tanker made for the military, is well behind schedule, drawing the ire of politicians.

For now, most industry observers still believe the MAX will resume flying commercially in the first half of next year. Yet after eight months of delays, setbacks and increasingly contentious congressional hearings, nothing is guaranteed.

“There’s so many things that could happen,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at the Teal Group. “It’s not in Boeing’s hands.”

The New York Times

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