Singapore – The reputation of aviation regulators in the United States has suffered following the crashes of two Boeing 737 Max aircraft months apart, the president of United Airlines told Al Jazeera.
Scott Kirby, speaking on the sidelines of a travel conference in Singapore, said he believes the planes will resume flying by August as the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) works to re-certify the 737 Max.
“Regulatory confidence certainly took a hit,” Kirby said. “But the FAA will be stronger, and the industry, as we work through the issues for the 737 Max.”
Airlines around the world grounded the aircraft in March after a 737 Max plane crashed in Ethiopia. That followed a similar disaster involving the same type of aircraft in Indonesia in October 2018. A combined 346 passengers and crew died in the crashes.
Investigators have focused on a new anti-stall software system as the likely cause of the crashes. And critics, including Peter DeFazio, chairman of the US House Transportation Committee accused the FAA at a hearing earlier this month of using employees of planemakers to be part of the certification process for new aircraft systems.
The FAA has defended itself. Last week, the body’s acting administrator Dan Elwell said in a statement on the 737 Max’s recertification: “As all of us work through this rigorous process, we will continue to be transparent and exchange all that we know and all that we do – to strengthen the public’s confidence that the aircraft will meet the highest safety standards.”
United is aiming to have its 737 Max planes flying again by August 3, a month later than originally planned.
Kirby said airlines affected by the groundings and Boeing have been helping the regulator re-certify the Boeing 737 Max. But he said that the FAA has the ultimate word on whether to allow the aircraft back in the sky. “So, we’ll just have to see” about the expected August re-certification.
Kirby said that United has managed to find aircraft to handle 40 to 45 daily canceled flights after it grounded its 14 737 Max aircraft, and that the impact on the bottom line is something to “worry about down the road.”
Jose Caiado, an analyst at investment bank Credit Suisse, said in a May 24 research note that for airlines like United, and for manufacturer Boeing, an FAA re-certification would need to be matched by other global aviation regulators.
“A critical mass of regulatory support in fairly short order, namely, the US and EU,” is crucial,” Caiado wrote. “We believe that if Europe moves quickly to re-certify after the FAA does, it would give other countries’ regulatory authorities more confidence to do the same while also putting pressure on them to act relatively quickly.”
Still, a key outstanding issue is pilot training. It’s still not clear how much extra training aviators will have to undergo once the FAA decides the software and other changes meet safety standards.
“The biggest caveat to the preceding framework is that regulators have not yet determined whether to mandate simulator training,” Caiado said. “A decision to do so would certainly slow the aircraft’s return to service and ramp-up to a full schedule, as well as saddle airlines with incremental cost.”
All Asian carriers, including Singapore Airlines, which operate 737 Max planes have grounded their fleets.