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- Boeing held a meeting last week for pilots, flight attendants, union and airline officials, and analysts, hoping to reassure them about the 737 Max.
- Business Insider spoke with attendees, who described the meeting as “transparent,” “humbling,” and productive.
- The head of American Airlines’ flight-attendant union, who previously said she and her members would refuse to work on the plane if it were not safe, said she felt Boeing was making progress in ensuring that “this plane is not only safe but that it gets in the air correctly.”
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In a presentation to 737 Max stakeholders last week, Boeing outlined the changes it has made to the troubled passenger jet in an effort to reassure airline officials, pilots, flight attendants, and industry analysts as the plane moves closer to returning to service.
Boeing also said it would not recommend that pilots undergo additional simulator training before the plane returns to the skies. Instead, it will seek federal approval to provide airlines with computer-based training classes, CBS News reported.
The meeting, which was announced publicly but closed to the press, included industry stakeholders, analysts, airline representatives, pilots, flight attendants, and union representatives. About 30 to 40 people were invited to the Seattle-area summit, according to attendees who spoke with Business Insider.
The event served to offer stakeholders — especially those who will be flying and working on the plane — a transparent look at the plane’s design, the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), and the changes that Boeing has made to the system since the plane was grounded worldwide in March, according to several attendees who spoke with Business Insider.
The head of American Airlines’ flight-attendant union says the meeting had a ‘humbled’ tone
Lori Bassani, the president of the union representing American Airlines flight attendants, was one of the attendees.
Bassani told Business Insider that the meeting had a “transparent” and “humbled” tone, with Boeing presenters including engineers, pilots, and CEO Dennis Muilenburg.
She stopped short of saying she’d be ready to work on the plane again when it returns to service. The plane and Boeing’s proposed training requirements for pilots have yet to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration, but she suggested the information presented restored a degree of confidence — especially as Boeing continues to move through the recertification process.
“Our flight attendants need the confidence that the plane is 100% safe,” she said. “Boeing is paying a lot of attention to detail; they’re paying a lot of attention to the different stakeholders.”
“It’s important that we be able to reassure passengers and answer questions once it does reenter service,” she added.
Bassani and her union have been particularly vocal in recent months about the plane, insisting that Boeing must be fully transparent about the process before flight attendants would be willing to work on the plane again. Bassani was also one of the first US airline employees or union officials to call for the plane to be grounded after the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302.
Bassani said the amount of technical information presented, which could be understood by nonpilots as well as the pilots and technicians in attendance, and the inclusion of flight attendants made her feel optimistic.
“We received a lot of information and a commitment that we’ll be included in every other step along the way,” she said. “And that’s not just Boeing; it’s also our company, our pilots, our pilots’ union, and regulators, not just in the United States, but globally, that we’ll look to before we make our decision.”
“I felt that they were doing everything they could do to make sure that this plane is not only safe but that it gets in the air correctly,” she added. “It was interesting to see it all. They went through all the different processes that it — for a grounded airplane, the care it needs when it’s stored and the care it needs to get it flying again.”
In addition to a variety of technical presentations, attendees were all able to get time in flight simulators to test MCAS scenarios with the fixed version of the software, as well as the previous version. Bassani said she got to observe as pilots from a handful of countries tried the new software, including pilots who had not been trained by Boeing previously.
Technical updates to make the plane flyable
Bob Mann, an airline-industry consultant and former airline executive, was also at the meeting in Seattle.
He described “extensive Max program status and informational briefings by executives and the chief pilot,” including “a primer on the 737 Flight Control Computers and Speed Trim System” and “explanation of the regulatory/certification requirement behind MCAS function adoption” to Business Insider.
The changes to the flight-control system include forcing MCAS to rely on input from two angle-of-attack sensors (rather than just one), making it easier for pilots to override, and making it so that the system would not reengage if it were deactivated by a pilot.
He also completed Boeing’s proposed training module for pilots, which included an explanation of the MCAS changes, and watched the simulator sessions with pilots who, he said, were mostly not current on the 737 and who did not work for Boeing. Boeing has previously been criticized for running assessments with highly trained staff pilots, whose training and experience are usually higher than a typical airline pilot’s.
Mann said he observed the plane to be “flyable” by each of the pilots, including “a number of scenarios involving full stalls designed to mimic the Lion Air and Ethiopian situations, where an uncalibrated AOA vane or dual-failed AOA vanes invoked the MCAS function.”
Mann said the meeting was productive overall and that he expected to see “the dialogue continuing as the recertification process proceeds.”
“I think the long-term takeaway from the Max debacle,” he said, “is Boeing now understands that given the changing technical demographics of the global airline market — 600,000 new airline pilots and 400,000 new maintainers required in the next 20 years, most in the fast-growing regions of the world — they have to step up and provide leadership in reconsidering next-generation flight-control philosophies, man-machine interfaces, cockpit designs, air-data presentations, collaborative safety-reporting systems, and feedback to all operators, worldwide.”
Will passengers fly it?
There were two topics that were not fully addressed: how Boeing plans to convince passengers that the company’s planes are safe and a newly updated timeline for the plane’s return.
Boeing is hoping to receive certification from the FAA in the new year. However, some have questioned whether it would be possible for airlines to resume flying passengers on the plane by March, which is when US fleets are scheduled to reenter service.
In terms of reassuring passengers, Mann said the plane maker would work with airlines but suggested that an amount of adaptation would be required.
“Boeing is planning to work with airline customers to redevelop traveler, travel arranger, and broad market confidence,” he said. “They are traditionally a business-to-business communicator, and suddenly have business-to-consumer communications needs.”
Mann said that based on what he’s seen, he would fly the plane.
“I’ll fly on the 737 Max without question. Only caveat is same as before: where I know the operator and the regulatory oversight environment in which it operates,” he said. “Customers face, tolerate, and assume-away far greater risks in everyday life than they will ever experience on (most) airline-operated aircraft, including the 737 Max.”
The 737 Max scandal
The 737 Max has been grounded worldwide since March after the second of two fatal crashes within five months. Both crashes have been attributed to an automated flight-control system, MCAS. The two crashes killed 346 people.
Boeing has been working to develop a software fix for MCAS and get approval for the plane to return to commercial service. However, the plane maker has faced numerous hurdles.
Leaked emails showed two managers with the Canadian aviation regulator and the FAA discuss their concerns with allowing the 737 Max to return to service with the MCAS system in place.
The ongoing crisis has cost the Boeing 737 the title of best-selling airplane, allowing the Airbus A320 family to pass it in terms of the number of orders.
US airlines have all pulled the plane from their schedules until at least early March.
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