Regulators in the US and around the world are debating the level of training needed by pilots of Boeing 737 Max aircraft before the plane can be approved to fly again after two fatal crashes.
Regulators are considering whether pilots need to fly on a simulator or just complete computer-based training, and the decision could determine when the 737 Max, already a source of frustration for airlines who have have had to ground the plane for the last two months, can return to the skies.
Regulators from 33 countries met with the US Federal Aviation Administration last week to ask about Boeing’s software update to the planes, which has been completed but not submitted to the FAA for approval.
Read more: Even more airlines are demanding payback from Boeing for its 737 Max disasters — here’s the full list
But at the meeting regulators were also conflicted over whether pilots should train in a simulator, which could leave the plane grounded for the months to come, The New York Times reported after the meeting.
The timeline for when the plane will return is unclear, with Boeing and the FAA eager to return the plane to the sky, but concerned that both their reputations have already taken a hit.
Sources told Reuters that the FAA told members of the UN’s aviation agency that the plane could return to service as early as late June. But Daniel Elwell, the acting administrator of the FAA, said last week that he could not outline a clear timeline.
“We can’t be driven by some arbitrary timeline,” he said on Thursday. “I don’t have September as a target, I don’t have June as a target.”
Read more: Boeing dismissed fears of a 2nd 737 Max crash when confronted by pilots after the plane’s first disaster, leaked audio reveals
Prior to the disasters, 737 Max pilots were not trained on simulators, and the FAA said in April that pilots would not need simulator training.
But experts told the Financial Times that the FAA appears to be changing its stance in light of concerns by other regulators.
Elwell told global regulators last week that simulator training is a possibility, the FT reported.
A representative of an unnamed large US pilots union told the FT that Elwell is “trying to be responsive to what other countries are feeling — and they may be feeling political pressure. That’s why he’s vacillating.”
Different regulators could have different requirements
Elwell signaled last week that it would benefit the FAA if other regulators approved the 737 Max at the same time.
“If they unground relatively close to when we unground, I think it would help with public confidence,” he said.
But Europe has outlined its own demands that must be met before the plane can return, including that the crews flying the planes are “adequately trained.” The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) did not outline what that training would entail.
Read more: Europe has outlined its own demands for letting Boeing’s 737 Max return to the skies, instead of relying on the US
And Canada, which also said it would have its own requirements, said last week that simulator training was a “possible option” for 737 Max pilots.
Pilots were not trained on simulators before the two deadly crashes
Training with a simulator is expensive and time-consuming, with the FT reporting that the simulators can cost up to $15 million and an hour’s training can cost up to $1,000.
Pilots unions told CNN that 737 Max pilots were trained with a self-administered online course that took a maximum of three hours and was conducted on iPads.
The lack of simulator training was initially seen as a benefit for Boeing, which designed the plane with a minimum of changes compared to other 737 models in an attempt to appeal to airlines that didn’t want to undertake expensive and time-consuming pilot training.
Read more: Taped conversation shows Boeing execs downplaying importance of absent safety feature on 737 Max
The preliminary investigations into the two crashes identified an issue with the planes MCAS software system. In both the Lion Air crash in October 2018, which killed 189 people, and the Ethiopian Airlines crash in March 2019, which killed 157 people, the nose of the plane repeatedly pointed down and could not be controlled by pilots.
Pilots say they were not informed about this system in training, a move that Boeing defended after the first crash by telling pilots that “we try not to overload the crews with information that’s unnecessary.”
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg also defended the communication about the system after the second crash by saying it was “embedded” into the way pilots handled the plane, and so “when you train on the airplane, you are being trained on MCAS.”
“It’s not a separate system to be trained on,” he said.
Pilots from the union representing American Airlines pilots told Boeing after the first crash that they wanted more information about MCAS and the 737 Max, a recording shared with Business Insider by the union showed.
“We flat out deserve to know what is on our airplanes,” one pilot said.
Boeing says that it is working with closely regulators and that the plane will be one of the safest planes ever to fly when it returns.
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