Boeing and federal regulators said Tuesday that the company is now recommending pilots of its troubled 737 Max jet receive simulator training before flying the plane again — an outcome Boeing had tried to avoid.
The decision is an expensive one, and will likely further delay the plane’s return to service after it was grounded last March following two fatal crashes. Boeing announced in December that it would halt further production.
The Federal Aviation Administration said in a statement that it “will consider Boeing’s recommendations for flight crew simulator training.” The agency and other international regulators are not expected to recommend against simulator training, particularly with Boeing on board. The agency will formalize its policy after the international Joint Operations Evaluation Board meets, which is expected to happen in the coming weeks.
This recommendation is a significant departure from Boeing’s previous position that less intensive training would suffice. The company had earlier proposed an additional training module that pilots would complete on a tablet.
Boeing said Tuesday that the recommendation “takes into account our unstinting commitment to the safe return of service as well as changes to the airplane and test results.” In December, the FAA completed simulator testing of the aircraft with line pilots from four airlines, in part to determine how pilots react to various alerts and malfunctions, but it has not yet announced the results.
The 737 Max crisis cost Boeing’s CEO Dennis Muilenburg his job in December, and analysts expect the production shutdown to be a drag on the US economy.
The company had designed the Max to avoid simulator training for pilots certified to fly an earlier version of the 737, known as the Next Generation or NG. The new jet was intended to be similar enough to require only the tablet-based training to bring pilots up to speed on the differences between the two models.
But neither that training nor the flight manual disclosed the existence of a stabilization system known as MCAS, which was designed to operate in the background so that the Max, with larger engines and different aerodynamics, would fly similarly to the previous version.
It was an MCAS malfunction that caused the two planes involved in the crashes to go into steep and unrecoverable dives, killing a total of 346 people.
Complicating the situation for Boeing is the limited number of Max simulators available. Full motion simulators cost several million dollars apiece and are custom-built for each model of plane.
Capt. Dennis Tajer, who flies for American Airlines and represents the Allied Pilots Association, said on Monday that Max simulators are “like unicorns.” He said the union urged regulators to put safety considerations first, and not “look at a spreadsheet to find out how many simulators around the world” are available when considering what level of training to require.
The simulator training decision will cost the company and airlines by keeping the planes grounded in the meantime, and because Boeing pledged a discount on the Max to Southwest Airlines if the FAA required simulator training. Boeing has set aside billions to compensate airlines for their losses during the grounding, and on Monday reached an undisclosed settlement with American Airlines.
Interim CEO Greg Smith said in a statement Tuesday that the training will underscore a Boeing commitment to safety.
“Public, customer and stakeholder confidence in the 737 MAX is critically important to us and with that focus Boeing has decided to recommend MAX simulator training combined with computer-based training for all pilots prior to returning the MAX safely to service,” he said.
The Boeing recommendation was first reported by the New York Times.