If it's not one Boeing jet malfunctioning, it's another.
With Boeing facing an uphill climb in restoring the public's confidence in its crash-prone 737MAX, the aerospace giant is facing fresh troubles, this time involving the updated version of the long-haul 777X jet which is facing additional testing because of what U.S. regulators called a serious test-flight incident and multiple other issues with software and inadequate data.
In a sternly worded letter dated May 13, which was reviewed by The Seattle Times, the FAA warned Boeing it may have to increase the number of test flights planned and that certification realistically is now more than two years out, probably in late 2023.
According to the report, the FAA cited a long list of concerns, including a serious flight control incident during a test flight on Dec. 8, 2020, when the plane experienced an "uncommanded pitch event" meaning the nose of the aircraft pitched abruptly up or down without input from the pilots. During the incident, flight-control software triggered the plane to move without pilots’ input, similar to the malfunction responsible for the two 737MAX crashes.
Boeing has yet to satisfy the FAA that it has fully understood and corrected what went wrong that day.
An FAA official said the drag on 777X certification is now “the subject of a lot of attention” at high levels both within the agency and at Boeing.
“The FAA anticipates a significant impact to the level of regression testing, change impact analysis, and the potential to increase the number of certification flight tests that will need to take place,” the letter said according to Bloomberg. It was written by Ian Won, the acting head of FAA’s division overseeing Boeing.
The FAA said in the letter it now expected the certification wouldn’t occur until mid to late 2023 and the work would take “additional resources” that could hamper other projects with the company. While the FAA doesn’t set the timing of certification work, relying on companies for that, the letter suggests the program could face delays.
The latest delay will push the jet’s entry into commercial service into early 2024, four years later than originally planned.
Separately, the FAA also issued a statement Sunday saying it “will not approve any aircraft unless it meets our safety and certification standards.”
“Boeing remains fully focused on safety as our highest priority throughout 777X development,” a spokesperson at the U.S. planemaker said in a statement in response to the letter. “We are working through a rigorous development process to ensure we meet all applicable requirements.”
The harshly-worded letter by the FAA is the latest in what has been a deteriorating relationship between the giant planemaker and its U.S. regulator prompted by issues that arose during the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max after two fatal accidents. The FAA had previously begun using its own inspectors to approve newly built single-aisle planes and has taken multiple steps to increase oversight of the company.
The FAA highlighted several concerns on the 777X, including a flight-control incident during a test flight on Dec. 8, 2020, when the plane experienced an “uncommanded pitch event.” That meant the nose of the aircraft rose or fell as a result of the control system.
A similar issue triggered by a malfunction on the 737 Max pushed down that jet’s nose repeatedly during the two crashes that killed 346 people, prompting a sweeping review of how pilots interact with increasingly computerized flight-control systems. The Max was grounded for 18 months while it was redesigned.
Bloomberg adds that the agency also told Boeing that a critical avionics system proposed for the airplane doesn’t meet requirements and expressed concern about proposed modifications involving late changes to both software and hardware in the electronics of the jet’s flight controls.
Worse, in a hint of broader troubles for the 777X, the FAA said that European regulators are uneasy over parts of the plane’s design. “The European Union Aviation Safety Agency has not yet agreed on a way forward on the Model 777-9,” the FAA said in the letter. Which, of course, is understandable for a European regulator that would be delighted with pushing out its own competitor Airbus planes.
Boeing announcement in January that it was postponing the 777X’s planned market entry to late 2023 was the latest in a string of delays for a jet originally slated to begin commercial service last year. Executives also disclosed that they were redesigning the jet’s actuator-control electronics at the behest of European regulators.
"That’s still the plan", Boeing’s Chief Executive Officer Dave Calhoun indicated in a June 3 presentation, weeks after the FAA letter.
“That airplane, we are still confident will be certified in the fourth quarter of 2023,” Calhoun told a virtual Bernstein conference. The planemaker reset its timeline based on the 20-month review of the 737 Max and “architectural preferences” of both the FAA and EASA, he said.
“So those are the important things with respect to how we do this,” Calhoun said. “We’ve given ourselves time to learn as we go through this.”
Emirates President Tim Clark has repeatedly slammed Boeing for delaying the 777X program and has raised concerns over the model’s performance in desert conditions. Bloomberg reported in February that Clark’s airline could swap as many as a third of its 115 commitments for the 777-9 to the smaller Boeing 787 Dreamliner.