FAA Considering Mandatory Simulator Training for Boeing 737 Max as New Hardware Problem Surfaces

The 737 Max saga may be moving towards a resolution if foreign regulators buy off on an apparent FAA change of heart. According to an exclusive story in the Wall Street Journal, the agency is now looking into a remedy for the grounded plane that it had nixed earlier, namely, mandatory flight simulator training:

Federal aviation regulators are considering mandatory flight-simulator training before U.S. pilots can operate Boeing Co.’s 737 MAX jets again, according to government and industry officials familiar with the deliberations, a change that would repudiate one of the plane maker’s longstanding arguments….

The FAA’s formal decision isn’t expected until February or later, and the situation remains fluid. An agency spokeswoman declined to comment on specifics, saying more analysis and testing is required…

Boeing has long maintained 737 MAX pilots don’t need supplemental simulator training beyond what pilots receive to fly other 737 models, a stance that many FAA officials now regard with increasing skepticism, according to the officials.

The FAA’s changed outlook on simulator training has arisen partly because Boeing and regulators are proposing rewriting some emergency checklists for pilots and creating some new ones, according to some of these officials.

In addition, one of these officials said, the FAA expects certain cockpit alert lights to be updated so they can notify crews of potential problems with an automated stall-prevention feature called MCAS. Misfires of that system led to two fatal MAX nosedives in less than five months, taking 346 lives and resulting in global grounding of the planes in March.

Frankly, if this is all that the FAA winds up asking of Boeing in the end, this seems awfully underwhelming relative to the drama of the world-wide grounding of the plane. And this might also seem like the FAA wimping out.

However, the FAA is in some ways in the perverse position that the SEC finds itself in. Admittedly, the SEC’s (and banking regulators’ generally) big act of cowardice is not being willing to force out, heavily fine, or otherwise seriously sanction corporate execs. That actually has happened not all that long ago; recall that the Fed forced out the CEO, vice chairman, general counsel, and head of government bond trading at Salomon Brothers in 1992 over Treasury bond market rigging.

But putting that aside, a general problem financial regulators face when sanctioning companies is civil versus criminal penalties. The problem, however, with even indicting a financial firm is that many counterparties would be required to stop doing business with them. That is why Eliot Spitzer threatening to prosecute AIG as a way to force CEO Hank Greenberg to resign was depicted as so heavy-handed. It was decried as a death sentence….of a company that effectively failed less than three and a half years later.

The FAA may have an analogous problem with the 737 Max. Telling Boeing to abandon MCAS entirely would be tantamount to requiring a hardware redesign of the plane….which means years, and would likely include the loss of all the backlogged orders, wreaking havoc not just on Boeing but also on airlines that depend on those new planes to replace aging ones and expand their fleets. In other words, this type of remedy would be draconian even if prudence indicated it were the right thing to do.

Perhaps I’m wrong that in believing that there’s not a middle ground, but I see a very big step function between the ready fixes and other solutions.

So the FAA is practically limited to rewrites of MCAS, whatever improvements in alerts that can be made without a cockpit redo, and training. Unless, of course, foreign regulators don’t deem those fixes to be adequate. But even if the FAA would like to be more bloody-minded, it would be better served, if it can, by casting foreign regulators as the heavies.

Now the perverse part of this development is that if Boeing had conceded to this change early on, the plane might well be flying now. Boeing’s protracted effort to blame pilots led to exposes of how much Boeing had in fact hidden from the airlines and the FAA about MCAS. When you are in trouble, rolling over, showing your belly, and asking for mercy is often the best approach, particularly after a global grounding of an expected cash cow means you aren’t in much of a position to negotiate. And even though the article positions the resistance to simulator training as coming from the FAA, this was likely the pre-new-FAA-Director-Steve-Dickson-regime defending its past actions.

One open question is how the needed training affects the business logic of the plane for Southwest, which is a 737-only airline. Recall that according to press reports, such a Moe Tkacik’s account in the New Republic, Southwest had required Boeing would pay a rebate of $1 million per plane if the 737 Max required additional level-D simulator training. That was way way way in excess of estimated costs of $2,000 per pilot. So was this provision merely a clever Southwest lawyer showing his macho….or was it that Southwest regarded it as a major pain to have to have effectively two types of pilots, ones trained to fly on the 737 Max and ones not, and didn’t want to have to keep tabs?

Get a load of this disconnect in the article:

The FAA’s formal decision [in context, on the simulator training] isn’t expected until February or later, and the situation remains fluid. An agency spokeswoman declined to comment on specifics, saying more analysis and testing is required.

“The FAA does not have a timeline for this process,” she said. “And at this point our primary concern is ensuring a complete and thorough review of the aircraft.”

Recall that new FAA Director Steve Dickson has now at least twice made a point of saying the agency does not have a timetable, and he wants his troops to take the time they need to make sure the plane is safe.

Yet we have later in the very same story:

Since at least early fall, regulators in Europe, Canada and some Asian markets have signaled they are leaning toward mandating extra simulator training as part of their independent reviews of the MAX’s safety.

The current tentative timeline projects FAA approval of an ungrounding order around March, after a group of international aviators—called the Joint Operational Evaluation Board—is slated to issue comprehensive training recommendations. After that, it would take weeks to inspect the idled planes, complete required maintenance tasks, brief foreign authorities and fly demonstration flights without passengers.

Note the lack of agency. Who is in charge of this “current tentative timeline”? The ordering of the story implies that it is the international regulators, but they won’t do bupkis until the US gives its approval. In other words, at best the Journal is flogging an outdated timetable.

The FAA may wind up coming in on that schedule, but Dickson is refusing being boxed in. If I were Dickson and this was some Boeing operative yet again trying to manage Mr. Market when there is no active plan of this sort, I’d be ripshit. But given that a new CEO is in place, if I were Dickson, I’d send a suitably unhappy message to him privately, giving him the benefit of the doubt in terms of not getting his subordinates yet marching all in the same direction.

In the meantime, Boeing has yet another 737 Max mess, potential shorts and newly-found fragility. SlashGear’s account:

According to The New York Times’ sources, Boeing discovered problems with the wiring that helps control the 737 Max tail. Two bundles have been determined to be too close to each other, risking a short circuit that could then send the plane crashing if pilots are unable to compensate quickly. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The Max’s engines have also been reported to have a structural weakness that could cause it to shatter. While the possibility is remote enough that regulators aren’t requiring an immediate change, the mere knowledge that such a risk exists might be enough to deter airlines and passengers from having faith in the plane.

It may simply be a function of who was reading business, as opposed to Middle East news tonight, but the Wall Street Journal’s commentors seems a lot less leery of flying the 737 Max than they had of late. However, there was also a lot of “well trained American pilots” rah rahing, which did raise questions as to how organic some of the remarks were.

In any event, the great unwashed public will likely have a better sense in a month or two whether the FAA will deem more simulator training to be a sufficient fix to give the 737 Max a green light, and whether foreign regulators will buy off. Stay tuned.

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42 comments

  1. PlutoniumKun

    A big unknown I think is whether non-US regulators start taking other national interests into account. China has been looking for an excuse to boost its mediocre Comac C919 and Japan may also see this as a boost to the fortunes of the Mitsubishi SpaceJet (although of course Japan has its own interlinked connections with Boeing). Europe of course has Airbus, but there is also the dynamic that a lot of Airbus flying national airlines will enjoy the misfortunes of Southwest copycat Ryanair as they have clung to their 737 only policy. I think the FAA must be aware that if they are seen to be even a tiny bit weak in the face of Boeing pressure they might just end up giving ammunition to other regulators to take a hard line stance. My guess is that the Chinese will be unable to resist the temptation to kick Boeing while its down.

    Reply
    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Agreed. I perhaps should have been more pointed. I think the FAA would like to be tougher on Boeing for its own sake. But if I am right about the size of the step function in remedies, that Boeing can’t do much more to fix MCAS and it can’t change the cockpit controls or warnings much either, then the consequences for Boeing and its customers are “a bunch of modest fixes + training” or a big redo of the plane, the FAA is really stuck. If readers have any insight, please pipe up!

      So the equation could also amount to, “Can China round up any allies?” China can still be jerks if they want to, particularly in light of US v. Huawei. But they’d do a ton more damage if they could enlist any other regulator to demand more than the FAA does if it imposes what could be depicted as a comparatively modest remedy.

      Reply
      1. Frenchguy

        About this step function, can the FAA make an unofficial deal with Boeing that, while they will allow the MAX to fly again, they want Boeing to start working on a new plane ASAP ?

        Reply
        1. PlutoniumKun

          I’d be pretty amazed if Boeing haven’t already concluded that the Max is the end of the road for the 737 and they need a fresh narrowbody design. I assume that one motivation for not announcing it now is that it would give the impression that they are abandoning the Max – many customers might prefer not to order any more 737’s if they know a new plane would be available before the end of the decade.

          A huge problem though for Boeing of course is that they may not have the resources to develop more than one model at a time, so a new narrowbody could mean abandoning the larger jets they are supposedly working on now.

          Reply
          1. Dirk77

            Even if Boeing announced a new plane it’s unclear to me that the wall st types running the company would let the engineers design it right. The main point of the Boeing engineers quoted in this ongoing story is that designing it right from the start saves money in the long run. Yet, in spite of the example of the 787 overruns, Boeing creates the MAX.

            I recall after the Challenger explosion that the Shuttle guys would talk about “one strike and yer out”. In other words, another catastrophe would kill the program. And it did. Given the nature of the commercial airplane business, I’m wondering if Boeing faces the same situation with the MAX. If so, do they know it? I am sure every engineer there does, but the board?

            Reply
            1. vlade

              I suspect the board has “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone” approach of most public company boards these days.

              Reply
              1. JBird4049

                Well, yes short-termism is the problem. It has been said repeatedly here by others, but it should be repeated. The fact that they would have saved Boeing money a decade later meant reducing the immediate profit, wages, and bonuses of the people making the decisions. IBGYBG.

                Reply
        2. vlade

          As PK says, chances are they already have something on the drawing board. But it takes years to get it into the air, and further years to get it approved. Think late 2020s is B is lucky.

          And there’s now the big unknown of what, if anytihng, will be the rules on CO2 etc. Which is a further headache for aircraft developers, who prefer to stick to true-and-tried, because anything else is a great risk (cf Airbus 380).

          Reply
          1. Synoia

            Boeing promised its customers no pilot training, which as Yves pointed out, is a major cost saving for the carriers (Especially South West and Ryan Air).

            Boeing tried and failed with MCAS. They are still trying, but the current MCAS was probably the best solution to this objective.

            Any new airplane is 5 years out in the future and requires pilot training.

            Reply
      2. Tim

        “Telling Boeing to abandon MCAS entirely would be tantamount to requiring a hardware redesign of the plane….which means years, and would likely include the loss of all the backlogged orders”

        I’m somewhat doubtful that permanent disabling of MCAS is that big of a modification to existing aircraft relative to their size/complexity/cost. It is mostly software utilizing existing hardware after all. Delete the bad code, repurpose some cockpit buttons and retrain pilots.

        Even if it was somehow as high as $100K per jet and 3 weeks to perform the mod, look at where Boeing is at right now on these $100 million paperweights.

        Day one of the grounding Boeing should have jumped ship on the MCAS and ponied up to delta simulator training required to understand and deal with MCAS in functional and dis-functional states and move on. Eat the $1 million per SWA plane, yada yada.

        Now they are out Billions and Billions, with a looming cashflow crunch…will they even survive?

        Reply
        1. Yves Smith Post author

          From everything I have read, a cockpit redesign is a huge operation. They are already highly optimized to run on older chip sets running on assembly-level languages. Rewriting the code on the chips is a monster task, particularly given reports that they are already maxed out. This is not three weeks. It’s more like years.

          And this is also not just “disabling MCAS”. MCAS is essential to stabilize the plane. Not having MCAS = needing a full hardware redesign, as in a new plane.

          Reply
  2. The Rev Kev

    That last bit about the problems of having the two bundles of wires is inexcusable. That same problem once caused a plane to go down and modifications were made to make sure that that did not happen again. How does the 737 MAX get back into the air without a rebuild?

    My guess is that there will only be a limited amount of upgrades made and 737 MAX training accepted, begrudgingly, on Boeing’s part. But what I think will happen next is that Director Steve Dickson and the FAA will be bypassed in terms of giving the go-ahead for this plane to fly. An internal board will be set up that will be authorized to pass this plane as being totally airworthy by itself.

    Of course that does not help with all the foreign airlines and their respective countries, or any country for that matter, will not allow that plane to overfly its airspace as they will consider it to be a dangerous design. That would require the next step. Donald Trump would step up the the Podium and say-

    I am happy to say that this great big beautiful plane will take to the skies again. Very unfair how it was treated. Everybody’s talking about it. It has all this wonderful American technology in it. Not like that unreliable Airbus. A lot of people tell me it is the best plane in the world. I believe them. Those wonderful people at Boeing have done this country proud.
    That is why after tonight, any country not letting our wonderful 737 MAX into their country, I will put a tax on any of their planes coming into our country. We are being treated unfairly by these other countries. But no more. Only losers will say that this is a bad idea. God bless America
    .

    Would Trump do something like this? Who knows. There are over 16 million flights coming into the United States each year so an extra tax – or sanction if you will – would be very expensive. Its not like American skies would clear out after they did after 9/11. He might even do this around election time as a way of boosting his numbers. It would not be beyond him. Watch this space.

    Reply
      1. curious euro

        It doesn’t matter what its range is. A continued ban in Europe would mean no sales in Europe and RyanAir maybe going bankrupt. Essentially sanctions on sales of Boeing planes.

        Trump could easily made to retaliate in such a case. May it be with taxes on incoming planes from those countries, maybe pressure behind the scenes “we know where you’re kids go to school”, etc. The possibilities are endless.

        Reply
    1. Tim

      Wire Bundle separation is an Airworthiness Compliance requirement. That is another “escape” for the FAA cert, not just a “shame on Boeing”.

      It’s amazing the things a non-advocate, second set of eyes can find that others can’t…

      Reply
  3. none

    How many 737max does Southwest have? Can’t be more than 1000 or so. So that would be $1 billion retraining penalty. Chickenfeed compared with what the grounding has already cost Boeing. They should have paid it long ago

    Reply
      1. vlade

        Which means 0.5% failure rate. on ~5000 planes it’d be 25 failures.

        TBH, at least for a while I believe that the MCAS situation will be overtrained (that doesn’t mean safe, but safer). My worry is what other things are there (as Boeing is still finding out).

        Reply
    1. sj

      It doesn’t matter to me how many 737 Max planes Southwest has. Members of my family (self included) fly Denver/Phoenix fairly frequently. None of us would board the Max regardless of training status. We would rather skip the trip (we have talked about this more than once). We would switch to the more expensive Frontier flights.

      Reply
  4. Fazal Majid

    I don’t see how the MAX can be put back in service without requiring triple-redundant angle of attack sensors like the Airbus A320neo has. No amount of software fixes can make a single or even two sensors reliable enough for safety-critical use. This will of course require a physical retrofit of all existing 737 MAXes.

    Reply
    1. John k

      This is my thought, too. Airbus has three, each feeding a different and different make analyzer, and system assumes the two in agreement are correct. I can’t imagine a fix not copying that. And odd this isn’t being discussed prominently in press. EU would be on firm grounds for saying such a Frankenstein system should have at least airbus level of redundancy. And maybe we will see past due pushback against many years of us bullying.
      But it’s not just a matter of drilling a couple extra holes somewhere, I’ve read that some 387 chip is maxed out (is that what they meant with max?) and that replacing that dinosaur would itself be a major headache.
      March doesn’t seem at all realistic, just trying to manage share price. IMO definite maybe on 2020.

      Reply
      1. curious euro

        Fyi, it’s a 80286 CPU, not 387. 387 was a floatingpoint coprocessor.
        A intel 80286 which ran at 6, 8 and 12 MHz was a CPU for PCs around 1984. The IBM PC/AT ran with it. Later someone, I think it was Harris, made a 80286 clone with 16 and 20MHz which was the fastest available model of this series

        No clue where Boeing sources their CPUs from since afaik 80286 hasn’t been fabbed for decades now. I remember stories about the space shuttle where they scoured ebay for working 8086 CPUs as replacement parts. Certainly no one would allow this in a new plane fresh from the assembly line?

        Reply
  5. Joe Well

    If only the world were serious about CO2, this would be the perfect opportunity to cut emissions by scaling back commercial aviation. This is more proof the powers that be do not care much.

    Reply
    1. the suck of sorrow

      I think whether the ‘world’ is serious is immaterial. The FAA regulates flight safety, but we need an agency to regulate pollution intensive transportation (the EPA?).

      I agree full (W)ell that limiting commercial aviation is a given to decrease CO2 emissions. The 737 Max 8 and 9 should be relegated to parking lots and future commercial planes should be propeller to limit environmental damage. Yes, propeller — flying should be rare, expensive and slightly more dangerous.

      Reply
      1. mle detroit

        @the suck of sorrow:

        1. the FAA itself has a unit that supposedly deals with emissions. The PDF about it is dated 2005.
        2. the FAA’s bureaucratic home, the Department of Transportation, is headed by Mrs. Mitch McConnell.

        So you’re right, we need an agency…

        Reply
        1. Joe Well

          Just adding, it doesn’t have to be just the US. Legislators around the world could stand up and say that this is a golden opportunity to find alternatives to flying (airlines are either highly regulated, effective wards of the state, or actually state-owned, so this is a relatively easy industry to bring to heel).

          Reply
  6. H. Alexander Ivey

    I shake my head. It’s damn simple.. Don’t people realize that two planes flew themselves into the ground? The pilots could not control the planes. We know what the problem is, a bad piece of software. The solution is clear, fix or remove that software.

    Any thing less will not fix the problem. Then, all it takes is one more crash, anytime, anywhere, within a year of the Max flying again, and no one will dare fly on the Max ever again.

    Reply
    1. H. Alexander Ivey

      Pardon the add-on, but the point is that the stakes from not correctly and completely fixing the Max’s problem of flying itself into the ground is not a few rich people not getting their bonus, or a larger number of people with modest jobs losing them, but of scores of people suddenly and dramatically dying, during a routine action. Then, the first two events will definitely happen.

      Reply
  7. vlade

    The big thing will be – will be the public willing fly the plane?

    TBH, Boeing (and FAA) are taking quite a risk there, but again, there’s no good way out. Basically, if there’s another max crash (I hope not) in not too far future, Boeing will go bankrupt, and no-one will take FAA’s word seriously for a long time.

    That said, the more one hears about it, the more it seems to me like shoddy (for the requirements) engineering, and those in the US still saying “If it ain’t Boeing, I ain’t going” should hope that “ain’t going” means “won’t take off”.

    Reply
    1. Brooklin Bridge

      You raise the question that has to be on many people’s minds. Another crash.

      Saf”er” and pilot training seem awfully tenuous and no one seems to be talking about additional sensors anymore. No one wants another crash, but it has to remain a distinct possibility and an eventual probability without a truly robust fix. Boeing’s financial needs won’t defy gravity.

      As an aside, I wonder if those flight attendants that made the news in November are still begging not to be on 737 max flights .

      Reply
      1. Dirk77

        Perhaps not unless the Boeing board of directors flies for a month on Ethiopian Air, using all of the latter’s flight crews and MAX planes, randomly chosen. Extra credit for flying over Iranian airspace.

        Reply
      2. Tim

        The only thing that makes a 737MAX unsafe without MCAS is the lack of pilot training to understand and react to a slight nose high tendency experienced in certain maneuvers.

        It is absolutely a better sell to people that “We abandoned MCAS, and properly trained the pilots to do it’s job.” vs. “We fixed MCAS!”

        Reply
        1. Dirk77

          From what I’ve read, MCAS is necessary bc of the inherent instability of the plane design, much like anything required to run at its limits. So fixing MCAS is the only option. If the plane has the proper sensors, Boeing should in theory be able to write code to get it to work. I just wonder if they are up to the task. I would love to be contradicted.

          Reply
  8. Darius

    I don’t think the FAA can risk certifying this plane as safe. Any more problems and the FAA’s reputation is ruined for good.

    Presumably at some point, they realize Boeing has to go back to the drawing board. Boeing takes the hit. Not the FAA. Of course, maybe the fix is in and short term thinking rules here like everywhere else.

    Responding to and agreeing in part with Vlade.

    Reply
  9. WestcoastDeplorable

    One huge factor I didn’t see in the article or comments, even if Boeing and the FAA come together on an approval, what about the huge amount of publicity this stupid debacle has received? Can’t you just imagine the number of passengers who will take steps to avoid flying on this model? Even to the point of turning around and leaving the boarding que when learning they’re about to step aboard this death-trap?
    Personally, I wouldn’t fly a 737 Max under any conditions, nor would I fly on a 787 (see the report below)!

    https://www.aljazeera.com/investigations/boeing787/

    Reply
  10. VietnamVet

    My Dad was a Boeing Engineer. This is so unlike him. Boeing is a muddled mess. I can’t help thinking that this has the same cause as the forever wars. Profiting from chaos. The short-term fix is pilot training, eliminating the gross software errors, cleaning up the cockpit confusion and rectifying the recently discovered problems.

    Australia, Siberia and the West Coast of North America are burning. The necessary fix is eliminating private jets and newer safer, energy efficient, long distance planes for the elite and technocrats to fly who can’t take two days to cross the continent on electrified rail.

    Reply
  11. RMO

    “or was it that Southwest regarded it as a major pain to have to have effectively two types of pilots, ones trained to fly on the 737 Max and ones not, and didn’t want to have to keep tabs?”

    The many advantages of having the entire airline standardized on essentially one, universal aircraft has been central to Southwest’s operations for decades. Having to implement dedicated transition and recurring training for a part of the fleet would be far beyond being just a major pain for them.

    Reply
      1. Carey

        Thanks for posting that again. Boeing engaged in pilot-blaming that time, too, until it was proved that it was a rudder Pressure Control Unit fault..
        not before two 737s went down, and a third one nearly did.

        Reply
  12. bstamerjon

    But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions. … Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.

    Theodore Kazynski

    Reply

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