Boeing Aims to Certify 737 MAX After Crashes That Killed 346

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is set to begin a test certification campaign on Monday for Boeing's 737 MAX aircraft, which was grounded worldwide in March 2019 after two fatal accidents that killed 346 people.

The tests, which are expected to last at least three days, will be conducted in collaboration with Boeing, sources told Reuters.

The aim of the campaign is to ensure that the aircraft is safe enough to return to service, perhaps before the year is over, people familiar with the matter told the news agency.

The crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in Indonesia and Ethiopia respectively sparked an unprecedented corporate crisis at Boeing, which has only been exacerbated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the accompanying reduction in worldwide air travel.

Sources told Reuters that pilots and FAA officials will board a 737 MAX 7 aircraft fitted with special test equipment at Boeing Field near Seattle. After take-off, the crew will conduct a series of tightly scripted mid-air maneuvers over Washington state and the surrounding area.

During the tests, pilots will also intentionally trigger a piece of flight control software known as MCAS, which has been updated after it emerged that failures in the program played a role in both accidents.

The FAA wants to ensure the new protections added to the software are strong enough to prevent the scenario that pilots encountered before both crashes, when they found themselves unable to counteract the effects of MCAS.

To get to this point, Boeing has conducted hundreds of hours of tests in a 737 MAX flight simulator, as well as hundreds of hours in the air on the same aircraft that will be used in next week's certification campaign, albeit without FAA officials on board.

Boeing 737 MAX
An employee works on the engine of a Boeing 737 MAX airplane at the company's factory on April 29, 2020 in Renton, Washington. Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Once the flights are completed, FAA officials will analyze data collected during the tests in order to determine whether or not the aircraft is airworthy.

Sources told Reuters that weeks after this analysis, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson will board the same plane to conduct his own assessments. Dickson, a former F-15 fighter pilot, has previously said that the 737 MAX will not be approved for flight until he has personally signed it off.

If the entire process is successful, the FAA will then need to approve new pilot training procedures, as well as conduct other reviews, meaning it is unlikely that the plane will be ungrounded before September.

"[The FAA will] make sure they find enough stuff wrong to demonstrate they are putting this jet through its paces. The last thing the FAA or Boeing wants is for the Administrator to do his own flight and say 'it's not ready.' Boeing wants Dickson's flight to be a coronation," one of the people familiar with the matter told Reuters.