On Wednesday, Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Steve Dickson donned his mask and took to the runway at Seattle’s Boeing Field to test pilot a now-infamous Boeing 737 MAX. The FAA head was positive about the aircraft during the two-hour flight, as he told reporters at a post-test press conference, “I liked what I saw… it responded well.” Still, Dickson and the FAA are not ready to recertify the plane and remain in no rush to do so.
“We are not to the point yet where we have completed the process,” Dickson said. “We’re in the home stretch, but that doesn’t mean that we’re going to take shortcuts to get it done by a certain date…The FAA and I in particular will not approve the plane for a return to passenger service until I’m satisfied that we’ve adequately addressed all of the known safety issues that played a role in the tragic loss of 346 lives aboard Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302.”
LIVE: FAA Administrator Steve Dickson’s News Conference on the 737 MAX https://t.co/Y3mRCEmGT4
— The FAA ✈️ (@FAANews) September 30, 2020
The FAA’s test flight comes roughly a year and a half after two high-profile deadly crashes of Boeing’s 737 MAX—one in October 2018 and a second in March 2019—resulted in more than 300 individuals losing their lives. The incidents forced airlines around the world to quickly ground these planes. Investigations revealed that the crashes were due to flaws in the design of the aircraft’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) software. This software tries to help the pilot provide a safer, smoother ride. But in both crashes, a malfunctioning sensor caused the software to mistakenly believe the aircraft was stalling. It then pushed the plane’s nose too far down, ultimately leading to a crash.
Boeing soon faced criticism for providing pilots with too little training and documentation about how the new controls differ from previous 737 models. The company initially hoped to push out a software fix within weeks after the March crash to remedy the situation, but weeks stretched into months after peer reviewers raised concerns about the proposed fix. It all led to Boeing firing CEO Dennis Muilenburg in December 2019, and the company continues to face ample scrutiny and criticism.
Just last month, a report by the US House of Representatives transport committee found Boeing cut corners and pressured regulators to overlook issues. “[The two crashes] were the horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the [Federal Aviation Administration]—the pernicious result of regulatory capture on the part of the FAA with respect to its responsibilities to perform robust oversight of Boeing and to ensure the safety of the flying public,” the report stated.
Ultimately, any fix to the MCAS software will require FAA approval—which is partially why Dickson opted to go hands-on with the plane this week. The former Delta pilot became the FAA chief in August 2019 in the wake of the 737 Max situation. NPR notes Dickson went through new pilot training procedures for the aircraft, plus spent time in a 737 Max simulator ahead of Wednesday’s flight. While in the air yesterday, The Seattle Times reports Dickson’s time included “practicing high angle-of-attack patterns and activating the flight control software that went wrong on the MAX crash flights in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.”
Dickson and the FAA did not provide a timetable for evaluating the 737 MAX during the press conference. They did, however, try to address criticism from family and friends of crash victims regarding the FAA’s oversight and whether this test was simply a PR gimmick. Dickson proclaimed Wednesday’s procedure was “not a publicity stunt.” Instead, the FAA administrator insisted, this was simply the fulfillment of a promise he made during his first few weeks as head of the FAA. NPR notes that Dickson has repeatedly said in the last year that he was “not going to sign off” on the 737 Max “until I fly it myself and am satisfied I would put my own family on it without a second thought.”