In a moment largely expected by the aircraft builder, the Boeing 737 MAX is ready to start the recertification flight campaign from Monday, June 29. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) confirmed on Sunday that it has completed Boeing’s safety system assessment review and it is ready to begin flight tests.
The flights will be carried out by the 737 MAX 7 prototype that the company has based in Boeing Field near Seattle. The aircraft is fitted with testing equipment and will conduct a series of pre-determined scenarios to check its flight envelope and behavior after several modifications in its systems. The test crew is expected to generate conditions for MCAS — Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — activation in order for the FAA to evaluate the enhanced software modifications and its added redundancy.
These test flights follow extensive simulator training and a significant number of flights performed in the last months without FAA supervision. It is expected that the tasks that are to be performed by those flights are well-practiced and simulated by now, based on that experience. While the best scenario would mean a single flight campaign, it is more than likely that the FAA will pursue additional flights to ensure all recertification conditions are met.
Nevertheless, this flight campaign and those additional flights are a significant step for the return to service of the 737 MAX, but there is still major work ahead.
After the aircraft is approved to resume commercial service by the FAA, it is expected than other aviation authorities will pursue their own certification, besides the ruling of the Joint Evaluation Board that was formed to address the shortcomings of the aircraft. Europe’s EASA, Chinese CAAC, and the Brazilian ANAC had manifested interest in evaluating the MAX on their own, and in some cases had stated that some additional conditions must be met for the model to be approved.
There are additional training requirements and equipment being evaluated by those agencies that have a strong chance to be mandated as a requisite for recertification: besides the MCAS software redesign, EASA is facing a particular challenge, as is being forced to evaluate an aircraft that has a different philosophy when it comes to pilot intervention.
The European authority cannot escape to its Airbus mindset, more oriented to cockpit automation than the assisting-pilot software methodology that rules the MAX’s design. In a way, it is a new iteration of a long quarrel about what is the crew role in a modern cabin: software managers that intervene as a last resource or human handling with software help.
In any case, answers will begin to unravel on Monday once the 737 MAX is back on air. This first step is major for Boeing, as it puts an end to a long year of disappointments and setbacks. With a 777X that is in peril after the global drop of travel demand, and with no market to push a new design, the MAX is going to be the obligated best-seller for the company. For that, it needs to regain the confidence of a market that is anxiously expecting the results of the re certification process.