European and Middle Eastern regulators will conduct independent certification reviews of Boeing Co.’s next new aircraft, according to people familiar with the matter, breaking from longstanding practice to apply what they say are lessons learned from the 737 MAX crisis.
The unusual moves punctuate eroding international confidence in the plane maker and the Federal Aviation Administration in the wake of the 737 MAX grounding in March. They are also the latest measure of how significantly the MAX’s woes have shaken up long-established principles of international cooperation in approving new jetliner designs. Historically, certification of U.S.-built planes received less foreign scrutiny than is now envisioned by European and Emirati regulators.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency said in a statement it is performing a “concurrent validation” of the FAA’s certification of Boeing’s 777X, a new variant of the company’s popular wide-body jet.
The plane is expected to be the first new airliner design from either Boeing or rival Airbus SE to come to market since the MAX crisis began. Two recent crashes of that jet exposed problems with its flight-control systems and FAA certification procedures. Regulators around the world grounded the entire fleet, creating turmoil for airlines and passengers world-wide.
The national regulator in the United Arab Emirates, meanwhile, also plans to separately scrutinize the certification process of the 777X, according to people familiar with the matter. While a small agency, the Emirati General Civil Aviation Authority wields outsize influence over the future of the 777X. That is because the U.A.E.’s state-owned carrier, Emirates Airline, is one of the new jet’s biggest customers. It is slated to be the first airline to fly the new model in 2021.
- Boeing Faces New Obstacle in Returning 737 MAX Jets to Service (Nov. 27)
- FAA Chief Explores Overhaul of Plane Approvals After 737 MAX Crashes (Nov. 17)
- Boeing Employees Flagged Concerns About 737 MAX, Production Pressures (Oct. 30)
- The Final Minutes of Ethiopian Airlines’ Doomed Boeing 737 MAX (March 29)
The decision by the European agency, in particular, marks a significant change in its longstanding trans-Atlantic relationship with the FAA. Over the years, EASA, as the Cologne, Germany-based agency is known, and the FAA have worked out procedures to rely extensively on each other to lead safety approvals of new aircraft on either side of the Atlantic, typically with limited involvement by the other agency.
The practice has translated into EASA effectively deferring to the FAA the primary role of certifying jets made by Boeing. With rare exceptions for specific features, the FAA has long done the same for jets made by Airbus, based in France.
The two rival manufacturers account for most new jetliners flown by the world’s carriers. The result, according to industry and government officials, has been faster and less duplicative checks before new designs are approved to operate across the regions.
Breaking that practice, EASA said in its statement that “following the lessons learned from the ongoing review of the 737 MAX, we have adjusted our level of involvement” in the 777X certification.
In an email, an FAA spokesman said the agency “maintains a transparent and collaborative relationship with other civil aviation authorities,” adding that each government retains the right under international agreements “to make its own decision on the approval of new products, or its validation of the FAA’s approval.”
A Boeing spokesman said in an email that “we look forward to continuing to work with regulators as they certify the 777X.” Representatives of the GCAA weren’t immediately available.
European and Emirati regulators aren’t envisioning a full-blown certification of their own. Instead, they will independently scrutinize the processes used by the FAA and Boeing related to a number of specific systems on the plane, including its flight-control system and Boeing’s safety classification system, according to people familiar with the matter. They will also individually review the plane’s unique folding wings, these people said.
The European regulator will also look at any novel system or part on the aircraft and will review any design features that are similar to the 737 MAX, particularly on the flight-control system, according to a person familiar with the matter.
The separate reviews further undercut the FAA’s once-unchallenged stature as the world’s most influential regulator. The agency had lost credibility in the days after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX in March. That followed the deadly crash of a Lion Air MAX, under similar circumstances, late last year. The crashed killed 346 people in total.
After the second crash, China took the lead in deciding to remove the plane from service, followed soon after by EASA. The FAA took its decision three days later. The plane has now been out of service for more than eight months.
It is too early to tell whether similar changes are in store for other jetliners, business jets or smaller propeller-powered planes pending certification in Europe and the U.S. The FAA, EASA and aviation authorities globally all have limited staff to undertake wholesale safety reviews across a range of models.
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The FAA itself said last week that it would take a tougher approach to the 777X in the aftermath of the MAX. “The 777X is something we will be scrutinizing more carefully,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson told reporters.
The 777X is set to start service at Dubai-based Emirates the year after next, before later entering the fleet of Germany’s Deutsche Lufthansa AG. That timeline is already about a year late because of production issues primarily related to the jet’s General Electric Co. engines.
The new scrutiny by EASA and the U.A.E. could delay that further, if either agency finds something problematic. Their reviews are being conducted at the same time as an FAA review, though, so they may not hold up the plane’s rollout if all goes well. The program’s current delays also allow regulators more time to review the certification process.
When it gets to market, the 777X will be the biggest new commercial jetliner available to airlines, after Airbus said early this year it would scrap production of its A380 superjumbo.
The 777X is an upgrade of an older 777 model, which dozens of carriers have used in their fleets. The new version requires a new FAA certification because of its bigger new engines and larger wings.
Corrections & Amplifications
An Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX crashed in March. An earlier version incorrectly identified the company as Ethiopian Airways. (Nov. 27, 2019)
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