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Boeing year-end goal for 737 max return gets boost in Europe

UPDATED: Fri., Sept. 25, 2020

A Boeing 737 Max airplane being built for Norwegian Air International turns as it taxis for take off for a test flight at Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Wash., on Dec. 11, 2019.  (Associated Press)
A Boeing 737 Max airplane being built for Norwegian Air International turns as it taxis for take off for a test flight at Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Wash., on Dec. 11, 2019. (Associated Press)
By Siddharth Philip Bloomberg

Boeing’s push to return the grounded 737 Max jet to the skies by the end of the year got a boost from European regulators, who said they expect to sign off on their safety review by November.

Test flights and a separate round of simulator sessions conducted this month went well, Patrick Ky, executive director of European Union Aviation Safety Agency, told French reporters on Friday. EASA expects to lift its grounding shortly after the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, Ky said. He expects Chinese authorities to take longer to allow the plane back in the air.

Boeing has agreed to install a synthetic sensor on the next version of the plane, called the 737 Max 10, according to Ky, whose comments were confirmed by EASA. Existing models will be retrofitted after the jet’s return, he said.

Boeing has worked with regulators to get the 737 Max back in the air following the crashes that killed 346 people and led to a worldwide grounding of the jet in March 2019. While the FAA is the main certification body for the plane, gaining EASA’s approval is seen as a key milestone for its return outside the U.S., after other global regulators signaled they would follow the European agency’s lead.

The agreement on a synthetic sensor resolves a key concern of EASA that went beyond fixes that the FAA had proposed. The European regulators wanted more redundancy for so-called angle-of-attack sensors which were a factor in the two crashes.

EASA has also asked for Boeing to give pilots a way to disable the so-called stick shaker alarm system, Ky said. Canadian regulators have also raised concerns about multiple alarms potentially confusing pilots in an emergency.

The FAA has proposed multiple changes to the aircraft before allowing it to carry passengers again. Among them, the system that was driving the jet’s nose down in both accidents would no longer activate repeatedly.

Boeing has taken other steps to minimize the chances it will malfunction in the future.

The coming Max 10, a larger variant of the single-aisle jet, is still to be certified. Ky also said that the regulator expects to take a closer look at the certification of future aircraft models such as the Boeing 777X jet, in light of the Max debacle.

The FAA completed test flights of the Max during summer. In August, it kicked off a review period that could potentially lead to a U.S. sign-off on the plane’s safety by October at the earliest.

After some scheduling delays related to coronavirus travel restrictions, EASA conducted flight tests this month working through Canada. Subsequent simulator sessions with the Joint Operations Evaluation Board, overseen by regulators from Canada, Europe, Brazil and the U.S., will set out the training requirements for pilots.

With airlines having to retrain pilots and perform maintenance on the grounded fleet, it will take a few weeks at a minimum after certification before the planes begin carrying passengers.

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