Europe’s aviation safety regulator is poised to clear Boeing’s 737 Max passenger jet for a return to service by the end of this year as questions over the future of the troubled aircraft intensify amid rising cancellations.
The signal from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency removes a substantial barrier to the single aisle aircraft’s global return to service after two fatal crashes that killed 346 people.
Easa has insisted on closer oversight of the recertification process since the jet was grounded in March 2019, when it emerged that a faulty anti-stall system had contributed to the crashes.
Since then, inquiries have found that Boeing concealed information from regulators and pilots about the systems’ weaknesses.
The US Federal Aviation Administration has come under heavy fire at home and abroad for its weak oversight of the development of the 737 Max.
Boeing has spent billions to repair the problem and in compensating victims and airlines.
Patrick Ky, Easa executive director, told Bloomberg in an interview that the agency was performing final document reviews ahead of a draft airworthiness directive it expects to issue next month.
“Our analysis is showing that this is safe, and the level of safety reached is high enough for us,” Mr Ky said in comments confirmed to the Financial Times.
Easa’s stamp of approval takes Boeing a step closer to relaunching deliveries of its ill-starred single aisle. The FAA is also in the final stages of recertification, having this month released new recommendations for pilot training.
However, the question now is how many customers will want to take the aircraft. Airlines are under pressure from the collapse in global air travel and orders for more than 1,000 737 Max jets have been cancelled.
“Recertification had been well flagged,” said Nick Cunningham, aerospace analyst with Agency Partners. “But with 1,006 net cancellations or changes, certification is no longer the issue.”
Boeing has 450 aircraft manufactured and waiting for delivery, with analysts expecting it to take 18 months or more before the inventory is cleared. But a substantial proportion of these “white tails” now no longer have a customer.
Fitch, the credit rating agency, recently estimated that 737 Max deliveries for 2019-2023 would be 50 per cent down compared with previous expectations due to the grounding and the pandemic.
In his interview, Mr Ky said he expected the next variant of the Max to include a third synthetic sensor to add to the revamped system on the existing aircraft.
It would take 20-24 months for the third sensor to be developed, he estimated.
“We think that it is overall a good development which will increase the level of safety,” he said. “It’s not available now and it will be available at the same time as the Max 10 is expected to be certified.”
Investigators found that in both crashes, a faulty sensor caused an automatic anti-stall system to kick in erroneously, forcing the aeroplane’s nose downwards.
Pilots for Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines battled to right their jets, but were overridden by the automatic system each time they did so. European regulators demanded a fix to ensure that a single faulty sensor could not automatically tip the plane’s nose downward.