The recently appointed head of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) plans to climb into a flight simulator to test software updates for the Boeing 737 MAX jet's anti-stall system when he visits the company in Seattle this week, a move one analyst called "theater".
Stephen Dickson, named to head the regulatory agency in August, said he plans to test the MAX's newly configured software and stressed that there is no schedule for getting the grounded jetliner back in the air.
"I can guarantee you that the airplane will not be flying again until I'm satisfied that it is the safest plane out there," Dickson, a former U.S. Air Force and commercial pilot qualified to fly the Boeing 737, told CNBC. "I can tell you that I will not allow this airplane to fly unless I would fly it myself and put my own family on it."
Robert Mann, president of R.W. Mann &Co, an aviation consulting firm in Port Washington, New York, said Dickson's decision is both an attempt to burnish the FAA's image and to gain hands-on experience with the new software.
"It's theater," he told China Daily. "He's the lead at FAA and hopes to maintain its primacy in recertifying the MAX. His action is understandable, but at the margins it's theater. Dickson has more experience in this area than his predecessor, and therefore it's understandable that he wants to get hands-on experience."
James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board and now managing partner of Hall &Associates in Washington, praised Dickson's decision to personally test the new software.
"I think it's the responsible thing to do," Hall told China Daily. "He's used simulators in the past and I hope he'll have some experts with him to evaluate the accuracy of the simulator. He's focusing on what he wants to accomplish for the American people, but life is public relations."
Patrick Ky of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency has said the FAA's worldwide reputation is in a "very difficult situation", and international regulators will reach their own conclusions about the safety of the MAX independently of the FAA.
"It's likely that international authorities will want a second — or third — opinion," he told CNN. "And (that) was not the case one year ago."
China was the first to ground MAX jets last March after crashes in Oct 29, 2018, in Indonesia and March 10 in Ethiopia killed 346 passengers and crew.
Investigators have focused on the MAX's anti-stall device that may have erroneously pointed the nose of the planes down to gain speed to avoid a midair stall and into a fatal plunge.
It's unclear what additional training the pilots will receive before the MAX jet is recertified for commercial service. Some regulatory agencies may demand flight simulator training, but others may require only a laptop refresher course.
Requiring simulator training probably would delay the plane's recertification in some nations because of the time needed to schedule pilots on the device, analysts said.
Regulators worldwide therefore may recertify MAX jets for commercial service at different times, creating a staggered return of the plane. In the past, overseas regulators have generally followed the lead of the FAA and accepted its findings, but that changed after the fatal crashes.
Boeing said it hopes to have MAX jets back in the air by the fourth quarter of the year, but the FAA has long stressed that there is no timetable for recertification.
Southwest Airlines, which operates more MAX flights than any other U.S. airline, previously canceled about 180 flights through Jan 5. American Airlines and United Airlines have canceled MAX flights into December.
Boeing said it plans to conduct a recertification flight this month but has not set a date. The manufacturer has announced plans to reorganize its engineering department so that top officials, including the CEO, receive faster feedback about potential safety concerns. The company's board of directors has not yet approved the plan.
Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat from Oregon and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, invited Boeing officials to testify at a House hearing Oct. 30.