Could Boeing’s reversal on 737 MAX simulator training help soothe anxious flyers?

Jan 8, 2020

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Passengers may feel more comfortable flying Boeing’s 737 MAX once it returns to service thanks to a decision by the manufacturer to recommend simulator training for its pilots, a reversal of its previous guidance.

As the global grounding of the MAX continues, Boeing has been working to reassure airlines and passengers that the plane will be a safe, reliable workhorse when it does return to service.

Now, the manufacturer is recommending that pilots receive simulator training before flying the planes once they are approved to return to service.

“Safety is Boeing’s top priority,” interim Boeing CEO Greg Smith said in a statement. “Public, customer and stakeholder confidence in the 737 MAX is critically important to us and with that focus Boeing has decided to recommend MAX simulator training combined with computer-based training for all pilots prior to returning the MAX safely to service.”

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The MAX was initially sold as so similar to previous generations of the 737 that pilots would not need costly and time-consuming re-education, known as “difference training” to fly the updated version of the aircraft.

Boeing’s decision to recommend simulator training was first reported by The New York Times.

An automated flight control system called MCAS was designed partly to make the MAX feel similar in flight to its predecessors.

MCAS is suspected of contributing to two crashes that left 346 people dead, and the MAX fleet remains grounded as Boeing works with regulators to update the system.

Until Tuesday, the manufacturer had maintained that MAX pilots would not need simulator training if they were already certified to fly earlier versions of the 737.

“I think it’s a smart decision, I think it’s very wise for Boeing to support this. I know that a big part of the MAX’s initial appeal to airlines was for pilots to not have to go through differences training,” said Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of travel industry analysis firm Atmosphere Research, “but it will be very reassuring to the flight attendants and in turn, that will help with the passengers.”

Harteveldt added that the new training recommendations are likely to slow the MAX’s return to service, even once the grounding order is lifted.

“Depending on the airline and the number of pilots that are involved, that could be a substantial investment of time,” he said. “A lot will depend on how much training is required, and what the FAA and other safety regulators will be required in terms of simulator training.”

Richard Aboulafia, a vice president of analysis focusing on aviation at Teal Group agreed.

“It’s going to add time,” he said, but added that pilot training is not likely to be the biggest factor in delaying the MAX’s return to service. “It’s still the approval process that’s the big variable here.”

Southwest 737 MAX aircraft are stored in Victorville, California. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Southwest 737 MAX aircraft are stored in Victorville, California. (Photo by Mark Ralston, AFP/Getty Images)

Harteveldt said that training requirements could hinder airlines’ ability to return their planes to service, as there could be a backlog of pilots who need training before then can fly the MAX again. He also said he worried about what the training requirement could do to existing airline schedules, as pilots may need to be taken off the line to be trained.

Wall Street analyst Savanthi Syth also agreed. In a Raymond Jones research note, Syth suggest that Boeing’s decision would “likely to temper the speed MAX capacity” comes back into the system as airlines wait for pilots to cycle through the simulator training.

Boeing said there are 34 authorized MAX simulators around the world, with 26 of those owned directly by airlines.

In the U.S., Southwest Airlines, which is the largest domestic operator of the MAX, has three such simulators on site already and expects to have three more by the end of this year. The airline, with 34 MAXes in its fleet, said it’s ready to comply with recommendations from regulators about training.

United Airlines, which has a small fleet of 14 MAXes as well, has one simulator in its possession and three on order.

In a statement, the airline said it has already been considering simulator training for its pilots and is now waiting to hear specific requirements from the Federal Aviation Administration.

American Airlines, which has 24 MAXes, said it is working with Boeing and the FAA on the recertification process.

Boeing will have extra scrutiny on it following Wednesday’s crash of 737-800. The plane is the predecessor to the 737 MAX and doesn’t have the main system issues at the center of the MAX investigation. However, it is likely to add to Boeing’s credibility issues and the public’s concerns over the 737 program.

Featured photo by Ben Mutzabaugh/The Points Guy.

American 737 MAX 8 aircraft stored in Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of American Airlines)
American 737 MAX 8 aircraft stored in Oklahoma. (Photo courtesy of American Airlines)
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