The head of the EU Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has admitted the agency was “not doing enough” to independently assess the safety of US-made aircraft before the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max in 2019.
EASA executive director Patrick Ky confirmed on Tuesday (January 19) that the Boeing 737 Max will be recertified to fly in Europe next week.
But Ky said the agency would scrutinise US-manufactured aircraft more closely following revelations of attempts by Boeing to conceal safety flaws in the 737 Max and systemic failings by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to expose them.
The Boeing Max has been grounded since March 2019 following two fatal crashes in five months which killed 346 passengers and crew.
A US congressional committee found “grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA” and described a process of “regulatory capture” whereby the FAA allowed Boeing to self-certify on 737 Max safety checks.
Ky said relations between EASA and the FAA had changed following the Max disasters and EASA would assess US aircraft independently in future.
He admitted certification of Boeing’s new 777X aircraft had also raised “questions on the relationship between the FAA and EASA and the way we conduct our own certification projects”.
Ky said: “The way we are doing things will never be completely the same. We will make our own assessment and increase our level of involvement on [safety critical] systems.”
Greater scrutiny would result in delays to certification, he warned. But Ky insisted there was now “full transparency from Boeing and the FAA”.
He added: “We need to work with our American colleagues to have an agreed way forward to review the changed product rules.”
The decision will mean European airlines could take delivery of the 737 Max in time for the summer.
The recertification in Europe follows FAA approval late last year and more recent sign-offs by safety regulators in Canada and Brazil.
Boeing has modified the flight control system on the Max, which was identified as a critical factor in the two disasters, and a new version of the aircraft will include a system to detect faulty sensor readings.
However, a restart of deliveries of the Max will not meant the aircraft quickly returns to service. Pilots still have to be trained on the new systems.
EASA issued a Proposed Airworthiness Directive on the 737 Max last November, setting out the conditions for the aircraft’s return to service.
Ky said then: “I am confident we have left no stone unturned in our assessment of the aircraft. Each time it may have appeared problems were resolved, we dug deeper and asked more questions.
“The result was a thorough and comprehensive review of how this plane flies and what it is like for a pilot to fly the Max.”
Accident investigators concluded a primary cause of both disasters was a software programme known as the Manoeuvring Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was intended to make the aircraft easier to handle.
This was guided by a single sensor and “kicked in repeatedly” if the sensor malfunctioned, “pushing the nose of the aircraft down multiple times”. In both disasters it led to “complete loss of control” of the aircraft.
Ky insisted: “EASA’s review of the 737 Max began with the MCAS but went far beyond [it].
“We took a decision early on to review the entire flight control system and gradually broadened our assessment to include all aspects of design which could influence how the flight controls operated.”
He added: “We pushed the aircraft to its limits during flight tests, assessed the behaviour of the aircraft in failure scenarios and confirm that the aircraft is stable and has no tendency to pitch-up even without the MCAS.”
EASA noted: “A fundamental problem of the original MCAS is that many pilots did not even know it was there.”
As a result, mandatory training is required for all 737 Max pilots before they fly the aircraft again.
Each aircraft is also required to make an “operational readiness flight” without passengers to ensure design changes have been implemented and the aircraft safely brought out of storage.
Airlines need to complete all software upgrades and maintenance and train their 737 Max pilots before they can assign the aircraft to schedules and EASA noted: “As there are only a limited number of simulators, this may take some time.”
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