Aviation CEOs warn of Europe-U.S. split on Boeing Max return

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Aviation executives are increasingly worried that a widening split between the U.S. and Europe will extend the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max, sowing confusion and fear as regulators work to approve the resumption of commercial flights after two deadly crashes.

Sounding the alarm this week over the increasingly tenuous alliance were Aengus Kelly, who heads the largest global jet lessor, and United Airlines boss Oscar Munoz. Alexandre de Juniac, who heads global airline trade group IATA, said he was “worried and disappointed” by the lack of unity among regulators. Aircraft-financing pioneer Steven Udvar-Hazy called it “uncharted territory.”

The regulatory discussions, which had been playing out behind closed doors, spilled into the open after the head of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency said this week that his group is conducting its own study of Boeing’s design changes along with a broader review. Under standard procedures used in past accidents, regulators would have delegated authority to the Federal Aviation Administration, which takes the lead in overseeing U.S.-built jets.

“The challenge of the moment is certification,” said Kelly, chief executive officer of AerCap Holdings, in an interview Thursday with Bloomberg TV. “When will this airplane be permitted to fly on a global basis?”

Boeing has said the Max is still on track to be cleared by U.S. regulators early in the fourth quarter. Southwest Airlines, the largest operator of the plane, thinks the go-ahead is likely to happen in early-to-mid November. Airlines will still need to make a range of preparations to ready the planes after they’re approved to fly, and Southwest has removed the Max from its schedule through early January.

“We continue to work with the FAA and global regulators on addressing their concerns in order to safely return the Max to service,” Boeing said in an email.The independent review is among four demands that EASA spelled out in an April 1 letter to U.S. regulators, weeks after flight-control software was linked to the second fatal Max accident in five months.

EASA’s objective is “to ensure that no similar weaknesses in the design are present in the other (safety critical) areas of the 737 Max design,” executive director Patrick Ky told a committee of the European Parliament on Sept. 3.

Europe’s insistence on an independent review reflects an erosion of trust in the FAA after officials signed off on a software system that went haywire on the Max because of a faulty sensor. The so-called Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System, or MCAS, pushed the Max’s nose down in both crashes until pilots lost control. In total, 346 people were killed.

“The FAA has a transparent and collaborative relationship with other civil aviation authorities as we continue our review of changes to software on the Boeing 737 Max,” the U.S. agency said. “Our first priority is safety, and we have set no time-frame for when the work will be completed. Each government will make its own decision to return the aircraft to service based on a thorough safety assessment.”

Without co-ordination among regulators globally, the Max’s return to commercial service will be “haphazard,” Kelly warned. Operators will be forced to avoid the airspace of countries where the plane is banned. “It makes it very difficult for airlines to plan — close on impossible,” he said.