The Federal Aviation Administration will not approve for Boeing Co.'s 737 MAX aircraft to resume commercial operations with its new flight-control program before January 2020, and FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson has cautioned Boeing's CEO Dennis Muilenberg to temper public statements meant encourage Boeing customers and 737 program suppliers about the jets' return to service.
At the same time, Boeing reportedly has put on hold its plan to increase the aircraft's production rate.
The twin-engine 737 MAX is Boeing's best-selling aircraft, but the 345 jets already delivered to airlines have been grounded for eight months following two fatal accidents, in October 2018 and March 2019. The crashes killed a total of 346 people, and have been attributed to a faulty flight-control program, called the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS). MCAS is an "anti-stall" software meant to counter aerodynamic effects of the redesigned jets’ larger engines.
Boeing has halted 737 MAX deliveries and reduced the production rate to 42 jets per month. It had been preparing to increase that volume in increments toward a rate of 57 jets per month by April 2021.
Boeing redeveloped the MCAS and has been awaiting clearance by FAA, the European Air Safety Administration, and other national safety regulators to install the software on the jets and resume deliveries of 737 MAX aircraft.
It's uncertain how FAA's handling of the recertification may influence EASA or other regulators in their handling of the decision.
In an email message from the agency to a Congressional transportation committee monitoring the FAA and its oversight of the 737 MAX program, FAA explained it is "concerned that Boeing continues to pursue a return-to-service schedule that is not realistic."
The same email added that Dickson is concerned with "the perception that some of Boeing's public statements have been designed to force FAA into taking quicker action." The agency and the manufacturer have been at odds in recent months as the Congress and other investigators have probed the 2017 flightworthiness certification for the redesigned 737.
In addition to withholding the MCAS approval, the FAA reportedly is investigating some production issues in the 737 program, and is concerned that a production-rate increase during 2020 is unrealistic.
With the aircraft's data of return to commercial service still unknown, American Airlines has now extended its suspension of 737 MAX flights through April 7. Other 737 MAX operators like Southwest Airlines and United Airlines may be expected to match the American decision.