NEW YORK – The top U.S. air transport regulator on Wednesday doused Boeing’s hopes that its 737 Max will return to the skies this year while lawmakers probed why the agency did not ground the plane after the first of two crashes.
In an interview just ahead of a congressional hearing on the crashes, Federal Aviation Administration chief Steve Dickson told CNBC the aircraft will not be cleared to fly before 2020.
The process for approving the Max’s return to the skies still has 10 or 11 milestones left to complete, including a certification flight and a public comment period on pilot training requirements, he said.
“If you just do the math, it’s going to extend into 2020,” he said.
The Max has been grounded since March following the second of two crashes that killed a total of 346 people.
Boeing has been aiming to win regulatory approval this month, with flights projected to resume in January.
But Dickson said, “I’ve made it very clear Boeing’s plan is not the FAA’s plan.
“We’re going to keep our heads down and support the team in getting this report done right.”
Many of the questions at the subsequent hearing in the House Transportation Committee focused on why the FAA did not move more aggressively after the first crash.
Boeing and the FAA have been under intense scrutiny following the crashes for their response to issues with the aircraft, including the flight-handling system involved in both accidents, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS.
Rather than grounding the plane after the October 2018 Lion Air crash, the FAA determined that it would require Boeing to revise the MCAS flight handling system in a process overseen by the FAA.
The agency also issued guidelines to flight crews worldwide on how the respond to a problem with MCAS, an automated system that pilots were unable to control during the Lion Air crash.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Rep. Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat leading a congressional probe, cited an internal FAA risk analysis that, without fixes to MCAS, the Max could suffer as many as 15 such catastrophic accidents over its decades of expected use.
That is a much higher rate than other planes and aviation experts consider it unacceptable.
Dickson, who did not join the agency until this summer following the two crashes, said he did not know who saw the internal analysis but that the agency’s decisions after the Lion Air crash were “data driven.”
“We really didn’t know what the causes were” of the Lion Air crash, Dickson said, adding that issues with aircraft maintenance and pilot performance were also factors besides the MCAS.
“Obviously the result is not satisfactory,” Dickson said when pressed if the agency had made a mistake.
“The decision did not achieve the result it was intended to achieve.”
DeFazio said the FAA’s response was “way less than not satisfactory … it was catastrophic.”
DeFazio said it was not clear how widely the internal FAA risk analysis had been distributed in the agency and whether officials on a key air worthiness panel saw the document.
“We may have a captive regulatory problem in the field offices,” DeFazio said, referring to FAA officials in Seattle who on key decisions deferred to Boeing during the Max certification.
A Boeing spokesman said the company agreed with the FAA’s response to the Lion Air crash.
“The actions that Boeing and the FAA took, including the issuance of the Operations Manual Bulletin and Airworthiness Directive and the time-line for implementing the MCAS enhancements, were fully consistent with the FAA’s analysis and established process,” the Boeing spokesman said.
Dickson said he was determined to improve the agency’s operations to prevent future crashes.
He said the accidents showed problems with “fragmented and inadequate” communications at the agency that inhibited the agency’s ability to comprehensively assess safety during certification.
The House Transportation Committee also will hear from Edward Pierson, a former senior manager at Boeing who told company brass he feared production problems put plane safety at risk.
Michael Collins, a former FAA safety engineer who has criticized the agency’s move to delegate some decisions to Boeing, will also testify.
Shares of Boeing were down 0.6 percent in early afternoon trading at $345.75.