IATA director general and CEO Alexandre de Juniac urged global regulators to lift the grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX in unison, even while acknowledging that the model’s return to service is still likely a few months away.

De Juniac said May 29 that IATA was strongly hoping for a “comprehensive, consistent and collaborative approach” as certification authorities evaluate whether and how to lift the 737 MAX operations bans that have been in place since mid-March. He made clear that airlines want regulators to pursue “the same timeline” and would find it hard to accept to have the grounding orders lifted at different times.

De Juniac also demanded “full transparency” as to what has been done so far in terms of reviewing changes to the aircraft’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) software that played a role in the Oct. 29, 2018 crash of Lion Air flight 610 and the Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 accident on March 10, 2019. The second accident led to a cascade of uncoordinated flight bans over three days, which left the MAX fleet grounded.

The IATA CEO also said airlines want detailed information about the work that still needs to be done.

He expects a meeting between regulators, its members and Boeing to take place within “five to seven weeks” to get a detailed update on the status of the process. He believes the MAX fleet will remain on the ground for at least another “10 to 12 weeks” If that assumption is correct, the MAX would be back in scheduled service in mid- or late August at the earliest.

De Juniac stressed that while further delay in re-introducing the aircraft would be painful for the airlines, safety is their priority. Boeing, regulators and operators also need to invest heavily into restoring confidence of the flying public into MAX, he pointed out.

Airlines were disappointed that the recent FAA-orchestrated meeting with global regulators in Dallas did not lead to a published return-to-service schedule. “We were hoping to get some timeline, but unfortunately that did not happen,” de Juniac said.

FAA’s stated purpose for the meeting never included setting a return-to-service timeline. Acting administrator Dan Elwell confirmed following the gathering that there is no timeline for getting the aircraft re-certified—rather, FAA will lift its operations ban when it believes Boeing has satisfied all of the agency’s concerns. 

While a global consensus to lift the groundings simultaneously would be ideal, few expect it to happen, and the meeting further solidified the likelihood of a phased-in return to service. 

A source with knowledge of the deliberations told ATW that representatives from several key regulators told FAA they intend to dig into Boeing’s revamped MCAS package, even if it means keeping MAXs on the ground longer. Representatives from at least two key foreign regulators also made it clear to FAA that they are facing political pressure to deviate from the US timeline, regardless of what technical reviews show.

For now, much work remains. Boeing is addressing dozens of points raised by FAA about the MCAS software and proposed training. Some are simple queries, while others “require Boeing to do some homework,” the source said. Once complete, Boeing will present its full package to FAA for review. The next step, the FAA certification flight of the new MCAS, is not expected this week and many not happen before mid-June, the source said.

“We’re making clear and steady progress,” Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg said at the Bernstein Strategic Decisions Conference May 29. “That includes the work that we’re doing on the airplane update, the software update, and working through the certification process with the FAA headed towards our certification flight.”

Among the items getting close scrutiny is the runaway stabilizer checklist that Boeing and FAA have pointed to as the correct response to an MCAS-related failure. A second source confirms FAA is working particularly closely with one foreign regulator on a review of those procedures that is likely result in changes, including new language. The checklist was not changed for the MAX, so any updates would affect 737NG operators as well. The second source characterizes the checklist review as routine for post-accident lessons learned, and not a safety-of-flight issue that would prolong the MAX groundings or lead to immediate actions on other aircraft types.

Jens Flottau, jens.flottau@aviationweek.co.uk

Sean Broderick, sean.broderick@aviationweek.com