Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 November 2019

EU regulator expects to clear Boeing 737 Max in January at earliest

Boeing said aircraft could return this year, but regulators say it is too early

An unpainted Boeing 737 Max aircraft is seen parked in an aerial photo at Renton Municipal Airport near the Boeing Renton facility in Renton, Washington, US on July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson
An unpainted Boeing 737 Max aircraft is seen parked in an aerial photo at Renton Municipal Airport near the Boeing Renton facility in Renton, Washington, US on July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

European regulators expect to clear Boeing's grounded 737 Max planes to return to service in January at the earliest, after flight trials by test pilots scheduled for mid-December.

The head of the EU Aviation Safety Agency declined to estimate when US regulators would make their decision to lift a flight ban imposed in March, but said any gap between the agencies would be weeks, not months.

Boeing has said it aims to return the jet to service by the end of the year after changes to cockpit software and training, following two fatal crashes that sparked the grounding.

The US Federal Aviation Administration has primary responsibility for lifting the ban and is expected to be followed by other regulators including the EU agency, but there have been concerns that others could be slow to act.

"It is going to be the beginning of next year if everything goes well," the European agency's director general, Patrick Ky, said late on Friday.

"As far as we know today, we have planned for our flight tests to take place in mid-December, which means decisions on a return to service for January, on our side.

Mr Ky said a return to service of the Max would be co-ordinated with the American regulator as much as possible, but the two agencies had slightly different processes and consultation requirements.

"So we may end up with a couple of weeks of time difference but we are not talking about six months," he said.

"We are talking about a delay which, if it happens, will be due mostly to process or administrative technicalities."

Mr Ky was speaking shortly before the disclosure on Friday of internal pilot messages from 2016 brought new turmoil for the plane maker. On Monday, he declined comment on the messages.

Analysts and unions said the messages could further delay a return to service, but US officials said they did not expect the messages would affect tentative plans, including a certification flight in early November.

The FAA says it needs at least 30 days from then to end the grounding. A European source said there were no immediate signs of an effect.

Mr Ky said the next few weeks would be critical as regulators turned their attention to human factors, assessing whether crew can cope with a high workload from future sensor failures.

Updated: October 23, 2019 09:36 AM

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