FAA prepared to act alone to lift MAX grounding

Discussion
Lifting the grounding order

Global regulators are meeting this month with Boeing and, separately, with the FAA to understand the MCAS fixes, review process in certifying the airplane and for the FAA to brief them on what its been doing to review and certify the MCAS fix.

Early after the grounding by the FAA of the MAX, the last agency to do so, there were news reports that the FAA may seek consensus with global regulators before lifting the grounding.

LNA has confirmed the FAA is prepared to act alone, irrespective of global regulators’ actions and processes.

“The FAA has been pretty clear from the beginning that its review of MCAS and the software enhancement would be independent from what the rest of the world is doing,” LNA is told by a source close to the FAA. “[The FAA] will be meeting with other regulators later this month to bring them up to speed on what [it’s] been doing and what [the] decision-making process has been, but each country retains its own authority on timing.”

Ultimately, then FAA will make its decision based on the facts, the person tells LNA. “It’s not really practical to think [the FAA] could justify keep the plane grounded once the data shows it’s ready to fly.”

Regulatory “power grab” in focus.

Melius Research issued a note this week in which it raised the specter of a regulatory power grab.

“What’s become clear to us is that there is major power grab underway among some regional certification authorities as the FAA’s status as an undisputed global leader is seen as ‘at risk’,” writes Melius. The European regulatory agency, EASA, “has asserted a strong and independent posture and despite pressures from MAX operators in Europe, is expected to move slowly in its efforts to recertify the MAX. Furthermore, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) now appears to be connected in some way to the broader US/China trade dispute and looks to take advantage of a rare opportunity to increase its influence on the global aviation stage,” Melius writes.

“The biggest area of ongoing uncertainty relates to the postures and motives of global certification authorities. Some of these organizations appear to be influenced by politics and public perception or are seeking to change their standing in the pecking order of certification authorities. This could introduce some risk to the current consensus around the MAX timeline and costs, as a stretch beyond 3-6 months.”

International Review Board

The FAA invited global regulators to participate in a Joint Authorities Technical Review, or JATR, to review the certification of the MAX and its MCAS system and to become informed about the fix, the FAA’s review process and recertification by the FAA of the MAX. This meeting is May 23.

“​​​​​​​Establishment of joint panel a brilliant step to address the challenge,” Melius writes. “The FAA’s (and we presume BA’s) push to establish a joint certification review panel seems to be a smart move aimed at allocating an overabundance of technical expertise and oversight to the recertification process. This should almost certainly help to quell fears that details will be missed and provide a strong endorsement for the aircraft’s return to service.

“However, there is some uncertainty about when the JATR’s findings, in whole or in part, will be released and how that will correlate to a return to service of the MAX in various regions,” Melius writes. “From what we’ve been told, some members of the joint panel, namely the Chinese, are frankly incentivized to drag the process out to enhance their understanding of the complexities of the aircraft certification progress itself. Again, this could introduce uncertainty in recertification timeline in some global regions.”

A shift in global certification?

The FAA, and its predecessor, the Civil Aeronautics Authority, have been the global standard for aviation safety and aircraft certification.

The fact that in the case of the MAX that the FAA was the last agency to ground the airplane, and that Boeing CEO telephoned President Trump to urge no grounding (followed by a second call reversing himself) injected doubt and politics into the FAA’s oversight and authority.

The creation of the JATR may be a “brilliant step,” as Melius writes, but is it a precursor to a seismic shift in which an international regulatory agency might be created for aircraft certification?

Until now, reciprocity certification—and, safety orders up to and including grounding—has been the hallmark of global commercial aviation.

With the rolling grounding of the MAX and the shake up in confidence in the FAA, will there be a move to shake up certification in the future?

“The biggest risk we could see emerging over time is an elimination of future extensions of existing type certifications on ‘heavily modified’ derivative aircraft, which frankly were used to certify every current Boeing/Airbus aircraft except the 787, A350, and A380,” Melius writes in its note.

“Hypothetically speaking, if an aircraft like the 777X had to be certified as a clean sheet design rather than a derivative, it would add 1-2 years to certification timeline, we’re told.”

The one, big advantage to a global regulator would be common development standards for all OEMs. The big disadvantage: global bureaucracy and regional politics or motives could muddle the certification process.

It will be a long time before the fall-out of the MAX crashes and groundings is known.

 

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