Boeing’s chief executive said the company is making “steady progress” toward the certification of a software update required to lift a worldwide grounding of its 737 Max jets.
CEO Dennis Muilenburg said in a video that Boeing completed an engineering test flight Tuesday using updated software. Investigators have concluded that the anti-stalling feature — the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System — was activated in the final minutes of a doomed Ethiopian Airlines flight last month. MCAS also is thought to have played a role in the October 2018 crash of a Boeing 737 Max in Indonesia. The crashes killed 346 passengers and crew members.
While investigators have yet to assign blame for either crash, Boeing has acknowledged that in both cases MCAS activated in response to faulty data from the planes’ external sensors. The FAA has concluded there were similarities between the two crashes, and is investigating “the possibility of a shared cause.”
A test flight with the updated software is a key step before a certification flight with the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing said. Muilenburg said Boeing’s test pilots had completed 120 flights using the updated software, totaling more than 203 hours of airtime. Muilenburg said he himself was on board a test flight Wednesday.
“Safety is our responsibility,” Muilenburg said, standing on a tarmac in front of a Boeing plane. “We own it, and the work of our team will make the 737 Max one of the safest airplanes ever to fly.”
The engineering test flight had Boeing pilots flying the plane. The certification flight will have pilots from the FAA at the controls. Those FAA pilots will independently verify that the software update meets all safety regulations.
Still, even as Boeing says it is making progress, the software update has fallen behind an earlier timeline described last month by Boeing and the FAA schedule. The Ethiopia Airlines crash on March 10 triggered a worldwide grounding of 737 Max 8 and 9 jets and threw Boeing into one of its worst crises in its 102-year history. Although Boeing started planning a potential software update late last year, it didn’t publicly commit to changing the MCAS software until after the second 737 Max crash.
The FAA grounded the Max 8 and 9 on March 13 so authorities could investigate “the possibility of a shared cause” between the crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia. Muilenburg has since acknowledged that MCAS — which pushes the nose of the aircraft down to avoid a stall — played a role in both crashes and directly apologized for the loss of life.
The software fix is supposed to prevent the system from overreacting to faulty data and include a new set of cockpit alerts to notify pilots to potentially dangerous situations. The update also entails a new pilot training course.
But those changes are behind schedule. The FAA initially said that the software fix would have to be completed “no later than April.” But Boeing’s full package of software and training changes were delayed.
Officials said that the timeline slipped in part because of a second software problem. Earlier this month, Boeing confirmed to The Washington Post that it had discovered a software issue unrelated to the MCAS system. The FAA has ordered Boeing to address software affecting flaps and other flight-control hardware.
Boeing, for its part, said the second issue was “relatively minor” and being addressed.
Meanwhile, airlines are warning passengers that the Boeing 737 Max jets will be grounded for some time. American Airlines has canceled all flights on the aircraft through Aug. 19. United Airlines said it was planning for cancellations through early July.