A new Federal Aviation Administration chief means a refreshed opportunity for the safety agency to convince the flying public – and flight crew members – that it is giving the Boeing 737 Max a full review in the wake of two fatal crashes.
As the longest, most impactful grounding of an aircraft by a major manufacturer drags on through the busy summer travel season, the agency’s new chief is making the plane one of his first priorities.
Administrator Stephen Dickson received a “comprehensive” briefing on Tuesday, the day after he was sworn into office, an FAA official told CNN. Dickson was briefed by agency officials on where the FAA’s review of the aircraft stands and what remains to be done.
Officials from Boeing and the FAA have been going back and forth on potential fixes, including identifying additional work for engineers to resolve. Boeing is expected to submit a proposed software fix to the regulator in September.
When the plane does return to service, some airlines may decide to drop the branding of 737 Max, according to two aviation sources with knowledge of the issue. One of the sources said some airlines may instead refer “to the aircraft as the 737-8 or 737-9.”
But that may be mostly overseas. Two of the three US carriers that have the aircraft in their fleets – American and Southwest – said they would not rebrand the plane. United would not comment when asked if it would rebrand its 737 Max aircraft.
International Airlines Group – one of the world’s largest airline groups and the parent company of foreign carriers like Aer Lingus, British Airways and Iberia – did not close the door to a rebranding effort.
“IAG has signed a letter of intent with Boeing for some of its airlines including British Airways with first deliveries set for 3 or 4 years’ time. Therefore it’s far too early to comment on branding,” it said in a statement.
CNN aviation analyst Peter Goelz said airlines will likely decide whether to rebrand after watching how the flying public and the market react to the plane’s return to service.
“The answer to the rebranding question will be driven by the marketplace when aircraft (is) reintroduced. If data shows passengers are avoiding the Max, I think you’ll see airlines rebrand it,” he said.
The FAA stamp of approval will be only one of several hurdles the manufacturer needs to clear in order to return to the plane to service, after two crashes killed a combined 346 people within a six-month period in 2018 and 2019.
The largest independent flight attendant union says the manufacturer will need to convince flight crew members the plane is safe before they agree to fly.
Lori Bassani, who represents American Airlines flight attendants as president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, says Boeing last took union officials into a flight simulator in May, where the company demonstrated how the plane is expected to fly once the software fix is in place.
“We felt more confident, but not totally confident,” Bassani said about the safety of the aircraft.
Goelz said the toughest audience to convince may not be pilots and flight attendants but aviation regulators outside the US who are accustomed to trusting the FAA.
“I believe it will be getting the foreign regulators to sign off that will be the challenge, because I think in some cases there are residual feelings that the FAA was initially slow to act on this issue and foreign regulator leadership is not going to get burned again,” he said. “So they will take as long as they need to make sure they are confident, even if the FAA clears the plane to fly.”
The Department of Transportation’s inspector general said last spring during a Senate hearing on US aviation safety that the agency’s actions in response to the crashes had “shaken” confidence in the FAA.
“Clearly confidence in the FAA as the gold standard in aviation safety has been shaken,” Calvin Scovel said.
In March the inspector general launched an audit of the FAA’s oversight of the Boeing 737 Max certification.