Boeing Max ready for key test as plans made to train pilots

(Bloomberg) – Boeing Co. and federal regulators are preparing to conduct a critical suite of test flights on the 737 Max early next week, and are preparing plans for other milestones to complete the 15-month grounding of the plane, including convening a panel of pilots to review a proposed training course.

Aviation industry officials reported the plans, which have not yet been finalized, said the US Federal Aviation Administration has reviewed Boeing’s safety analysis of the solutions it has made and feels comfortable to move to the next step: piloting the aircraft to the test

The first of several days of test flights could come as early as Monday, according to three people familiar with the plans who were not allowed to speak publicly about the still-tentative situation. Boeing had privately targeted FAA flights in late June.

“The team is moving towards FAA certification flights in the near future,” the agency said in a statement.

“The FAA is reviewing Boeing documentation to determine if the company has met the criteria to move to the next stage of evaluation,” the agency said. “We will conduct the certification flights only after we are satisfied with that data.”

Boeing declined to comment.

Regulators and Boeing also hope to convene an international panel of airline pilots to test a proposed new training course for Max’s flight crews, possibly in late July and early August, the people said.

Travel restrictions related to the global pandemic have added uncertainty to how such sessions would occur. Plans are being discussed to allow the group to do their work remotely on flight simulators around the world, rather than flying to Boeing’s main training center in Miami, Florida, where a Covid-19 outbreak breaks out.

Boeing cut losses on the Bloomberg report of the certification flight and decreased 2.8% to $ 170.01 at the close in New York. Shares fell as much as 4.2% in the trading session after Bernstein analyst Douglas Harned downgraded the company’s rating to the equivalent of “hold.” He cited uncertainty about the return of 737 and the possibility of a pandemic disrupting air travel in the mid-decade.

Setting a date for certification flights is one of the most critical steps on Boeing’s path to resume service on its best-selling aircraft, which was based in March 2019 amid a global rampage after the second fatal accident in less than five months.

However, several more hurdles remain before the plane can obtain its final certification from regulators. Airline customers have been informed that it could arrive as early as September if all goes well.

On the one hand, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson and his deputy Dan Elwell, both airline pilots, plan to also fly the plane after the certification flight in an attempt to reassure the public.

The controversial issue of new training must also be addressed. Boeing decided in January to abandon its long-standing stance that pilots of an older 737 model would only need a short computer course to fly the Max, a crucial selling point before the accidents.

In addition to working with international pilots, a group known as the Joint Operations Evaluation Board, the FAA is also convening its own group to evaluate training.

The FAA Flight Standardization Board will propose minimum training requirements and give the public an opportunity to comment before finalizing them.

In addition, the FAA and its counterparts in other countries must legally require that repairs be made to the plane before transporting passengers. Governments will also establish requirements for inspections and maintenance on the nearly 400 aircraft worldwide that have not flown since grounding.

And, even if regulators approve of Max’s return to service later this year, that probably won’t be the end of the required changes to the plane. Regulators have told Boeing to expect additional requirements to be incorporated, according to people familiar with the discussions.

The test flights will come after more than a year of harsh criticism from Boeing skeptics, multiple investigations of the plane, and a federal criminal investigation.

Successfully completing the tests would provide some rare good news for Boeing and CEO Dave Calhoun at a time when the aviation industry is recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic and could help unlock billions of dollars in inventory from approximately 450 aircraft that the company has built but cannot be delivered.

“For Boeing, it could close a chapter that has lasted longer than they wanted and kills a lot of speculation in the market that the plane will never fly again,” said George Ferguson, analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. Some short sellers have fueled speculation that the plane will never return.

(Updates the stock at the closing price in the ninth paragraph. An earlier version of this story was corrected to show that Bernstein lowered his recommendation on Boeing stock to hold.)

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