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Aircraft regulators will join forces to restore Boeing 737 Max to service

Aircraft regulators will join forces to restore Boeing 737 Max to service
A number of grounded Boeing 737 MAX airplanes crowd a parking area adjacent to Boeing Field on Thursday in Seattle. (Elaine Thompson / Associated Press)

Four of the world’s leading aircraft regulators have agreed in principle to coordinate in restoring Boeing Co.’s 737 Max to service once they’re confident that technical updates and new training meet safety standards.

The tentative pact is an attempt to avoid the fractious approach taken in grounding the jet after two deadly crashes, people familiar with the discussions said. Officials from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration have held discussions with their counterparts in Europe, Canada and Brazil and came away believing there is consensus on the need to act together to restore public trust in the world’s aviation-safety system.

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The rising sense of cooperation suggests that other leading regulatory agencies are gaining confidence in the U.S. process for assessing Boeing’s fix. A renewed convergence would mark a reversal from what airlines and even Boeing’s top rival have feared — a disorderly approach to recertifying the Max that would further strain ties between the FAA and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, the global standard-bearers for safety.

“We’ve been working, all of us in the industry across borders, to some degree, to get the rest of the regulators in all the other countries to return that aircraft to flight at roughly the same time,” Oscar Munoz, chief executive officer of United Airlines, said this week at the Aspen Ideas Festival. “It’s not going to look good if one brings it up and no one else does.”

The FAA’s associate administrator for aviation safety, Ali Bahrami, met earlier this month in Europe with his counterparts at other agencies, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The FAA believes that the other countries are ready to act closely with the U.S. to lift the grounding, said the person, who wasn’t authorized to discuss the talks and asked not to be identified.

The volatile politics swirling around the Boeing jet — which includes multiple investigations and calls by some U.S. lawmakers and foreign leaders for significant changes — mean that there is still no guarantee that there will be collaboration, the person said. Another wild card is China, a crucial market for Boeing, and the first country that grounded the Max.

This week’s revelation that FAA test pilots had found a new risk factor in the plane and were ordering the manufacturer to revise a flight computer highlights how fluid the situation remains. Boeing’s timeline for completing the Max software fixes has repeatedly slipped while regulators have expanded their review to include a cockpit alert that wasn’t widely operational and an extensive look at pilot training.

The company has been telling customers and others with a stake in the 737 Max’s future that it anticipates it can address the issue as well as a broader software redesign, and return the plane to service in a September time frame, said people familiar with the manufacturer’s talking points.

But the Max might not be cleared to fly until October or November, depending on the sequence of the work and additional documentation that regulators require with the latest fix, Bernstein analyst Douglas Harned said in a note to clients Friday.

Boeing shares slipped 1 cent Friday to $364.01. The stock is up nearly 13% this year, comparable to the gain of the Dow Jones industrial average.

The 737 Max family of aircraft was grounded on March 13, after the second fatal crash within five months was linked to malfunctioning flight-control software. Boeing is still working with FAA engineers to fine-tune a software redesign for the plane and establish what types of new training will be needed for pilots before flights can resume.

In the days after the March 10 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that killed 157 people, the world’s aviation regulators fractured. Numerous regulators, including China and EASA, grounded the plane before the FAA acted. The FAA said it didn’t make a decision until it had received hard data indicating the two crashes were linked.

That disparate response runs counter to decades of attempts to standardize the process of certifying aircraft and setting safety standards. The effort is designed in part to make it easier for manufacturers to get new planes to market, but also to help reduce the accident rate by agreeing on common standards.

Global regulators are trying to restore more collaboration. Another person briefed on talks involving the different regulatory agencies said that while EASA nations and other countries may not return the Max to flight at the same time the FAA does, they are likely to follow within days of U.S. action.

The four regulation agencies — which collectively oversee Boeing, Airbus SE, Bombardier Inc. and Embraer SA — formed a task force after the grounding because they felt it would cause problems with the world’s aviation system if the FAA acted alone to return the plane while others sat on the sidelines, said a person familiar with the the workings of Brazil’s National Civil Aviation Agency.

Boeing Chief Executive Dennis Muilenburg told reporters that the company is seeing a “convergence” among the four leading regulators. “There’s certainly an advantage to bringing the airplane back up around the world in a highly synchronized fashion,” he said in a June 16 briefing.

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Once the grounding is lifted, the first of the planes could be airborne within weeks, although it will likely take months before the more than 500 Max planes in storage enter the global fleet, Muilenburg said this week. That total includes as many as 150 newly built jets that haven’t been delivered.

Any decision to return the Max to the skies will also depend on Boeing’s effort to eliminate risks created by the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, which has been implicated in the two accidents, the people said. An MCAS malfunction can repeatedly command a plane to dive.

Just two weeks ago, Patrick Ky, executive director of EASA, said the agency was considering whether Boeing should have to add an additional sensor to the plane, which would boost the cost and complication of recertifying the plane.

The FAA said it had been “transparent and collaborative” with other nations’ regulators. Each government will make its own decision,” the agency said in a statement.

However, some powerful voices in international aviation have been calling on regulators to work together more closely.

Airbus Chief Executive Guillaume Faury has said he’s concerned about tensions between regulators and reiterated the importance of having “one system.”

The International Air Transport Assn., which represents carriers around the world, urged regulators Thursday to align on technical considerations and timelines for allowing the Max to fly again.

“We trust the Federal Aviation Administration, in its role as the certifying regulator, to ensure the aircraft’s safe return to service,” said IATA’s chief, Alexandre de Juniac, who represents carriers around the world.

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FAA Acting Administrator Daniel Elwell, speaking last month as the agency prepared to host regulators from other countries at a meeting in Texas, said: “We want every country who has been part of this to be reading from the same book.”

Levin, Johnsson and Katz write for Bloomberg. Bloomberg writers Mario Sergio Lima, Mary Schlangenstein, Justin Bachman and Richard Weiss contributed to this report.

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