Boeing Co. BA 1.01% got a tentative personal endorsement for fixes to its beleaguered 737 MAX from the head of the Federal Aviation Administration after he personally took one of the jets on a test flight.
“I like what I saw on the flight this morning,” said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, a former Air Force aviator and senior airline pilot, after sitting behind the controls for a two-hour ride over parts of the Pacific Northwest, accompanied by a handful of pilots who work for Boeing and the FAA.
The agency is in the final phase of a drawn-out process vetting hardware and software changes to the MAX, particularly to an automated flight-control system that led to two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019.
“I felt very comfortable. I felt very prepared based on the training,” Mr. Dickson, still wearing his blue FAA flight suit, told reporters, referring to Boeing’s proposed ground-simulator training sessions for pilots that would get the MAX back in the air. “We’re in the homestretch, but it doesn’t mean we’re going to take shortcuts.”
Wednesday’s flight—which Mr. Dickson pledged months ago to perform—is one of the last steps intended to allay passengers’ concerns about the MAX’s safety before the FAA is expected to clear the aircraft to resume commercial operations.
“We still have some work to do yet” to respond to public comments and finalize all of the airplane and training revisions, Mr. Dickson said. Asked about faltering public confidence in the FAA’s latest oversight of the MAX, the agency’s chief responded, “I don’t think you ever stop trying to earn the trust of the public.”
With preliminary support from international air-safety regulators already in hand and final details of pilot-training changes expected to be ironed out in coming weeks, the MAX fleet could secure approval as early as November to return to commercial service. Widespread passenger flights across the U.S., Europe, Canada and other regions could follow around the end of the year, based on internal FAA and carrier timelines.
“There is very little daylight between the authorities on this project,” Mr. Dickson said.
Even after regulators give the go-ahead, individual airlines will have to complete maintenance checks, conduct operational-readiness flights and put pilots through extra ground-based flight-simulator training before starting to carry passengers again.
Relatives of crash victims responded angrily to Mr. Dickson’s unusual test flight, claiming the FAA hasn’t shared important safety data. Michael Stumo, whose daughter was killed in one of the crashes, called Mr. Dickson’s event a boost for “Boeing’s public relations and marketing efforts.”
Zipporah Kuria, whose father died on a MAX, said the test was “nothing but a clown in a suit to reassure the public that everything is fine.”
The FAA chief pushed back on that criticism in comments to reporters, saying the agency has kept the families informed as much as possible throughout the process, adding, “It was important for me to experience the training and the handling of the aircraft firsthand.”
His flight coincided with the House Transportation Committee’s approval of a bipartisan bill—weaker than earlier Democratic proposals—intended to prevent a repeat of FAA and Boeing mistakes that ultimately led to a global MAX grounding in March 2019. Two fatal crashes of the twin-engine jet within less than five months of each other took 346 lives, created the biggest corporate crisis in Boeing’s 104-year history and threatened the FAA’s stature as the world’s pre-eminent air-safety authority.
Passed on a voice vote with no amendments, the legislation distills findings of a lengthy investigation by the panel’s Democratic majority, which blamed the FAA and the Chicago plane maker for missing repeated opportunities—and lacking adequate internal safeguards—to eliminate safety hazards before the crashes. An automated flight-control feature called MCAS misfired, overwhelming manual pilot commands and putting both jets into steep, unrecoverable nosedives.
The bill expands FAA authority to choose and supervise Boeing employees, called designees, delegated to approve safety systems on behalf of the government. It also introduces stepped-up whistleblower protections and civil fines if manufacturers fail to fully disclose details of essential flight-control systems or seek to interfere with decisions by FAA designees.
The legislation calls for additional FAA funding and personnel to handle increasingly sophisticated cockpit automation. But it doesn’t include a proposed provision that would have barred manufacturers from piggybacking regulatory approvals for heavily modified versions of certain decades-old plane designs—as Boeing did when it created the MAX, a variant of a model that had been in service since the late 1960s.
The bill calls on outside experts to advise the FAA for the first time about Boeing’s safety culture.
Rep. Peter DeFazio, the Oregon Democrat who is chairman of the committee, alleged during discussion of the bill Wednesday that Boeing’s corporate “culture of profits at any cost” might have contributed to company design and communication missteps that left the FAA largely in the dark about MAX safety hazards.
Echoing conclusions from the panel’s sharply worded investigative report released earlier this month, Mr. DeFazio said the FAA was “unable or unwilling to conduct rigorous oversight” of the MAX. The bill “will fix the broken system,” he said, predicting a vote on the House floor later this year.
A Boeing spokesman said the company was grateful for the FAA’s “rigorous process that will lead to the safe return to service of the 737 MAX” and is ready to meet other requirements set by the agency and international regulators.
Getting a similar bill to the Senate floor this year appears significantly less likely, according to industry and government officials tracking the legislation. The Senate Commerce Committee hit a stalemate earlier this month over a similar measure that was abruptly pulled from consideration.
Though supporters portray the House bill as a comprehensive reform of FAA procedures for certifying the safety of an array of newly designed aircraft, most of the provisions stem directly from specific aspects of the MAX saga. Many of the proposed changes were prompted by technical errors, unfounded assumptions regarding pilot reaction times and various regulatory loopholes documented by the committee and outside groups during the crisis.
Meantime, the FAA has taken limited steps independently to improve internal safeguards and communications while protecting lower-level employees from undue pressure from agency managers.