In yet another blow to Boeing, the Federal Aviation Administration last month formally denied the jet maker permission to move forward with a key step in certifying its forthcoming giant widebody airplane, the 777X.
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.
That could push the jet’s entry into commercial service into early 2024, four years later than originally planned.
The FAA cited a long litany 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.
Boeing has yet to satisfy the FAA that it has fully understood and corrected what went wrong that day.
The letter was signed by Ian Won, the manager of the local FAA office that judges whether Boeing has met all regulatory standards. He also told Boeing that a critical avionics system proposed for the airplane does not meet requirements.
And he expressed concern about proposed modifications involving late changes to both software and hardware in the electronics of the jet’s flight controls.
“The aircraft is not yet ready,” Won wrote. “The technical data required for type certification has not reached a point where it appears the aircraft type design is mature and can be expected to meet the applicable regulations.”
An FAA official, who asked not to be identified in order to speak freely, 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.
Boeing’s last all-new jet, the 787, had to be grounded in 2013 when its batteries smoldered in flight. The next new plane, the derivative 737 MAX, was grounded for 21 months starting in 2019 after flawed new flight controls caused two fatal crashes.
Now the forthcoming 777X is having a troubled certification process. Is this just the FAA getting tough because of all the scrutiny?
The FAA official said that even if the MAX crashes hadn’t happened, the list of serious issues now raised about the 777X would merit rigorous regulatory attention.
Within the FAA, the person said, “there’s a general feeling that Boeing has kind of lost a step,” referring to the slide away from a historic reputation for engineering prowess.
And because of all the missteps, the official added, “the days of Boeing being able to say to the FAA ‘Just trust us’ are long gone.”
In a statement Friday, Boeing said it “remains fully focused on safety as our highest priority throughout 777X development.”
The airplane is undergoing “a comprehensive test program to demonstrate its safety and reliability … to ensure we meet all applicable requirements,” Boeing added.
The FAA in a statement said safety drives its decisions and timelines.
“The FAA will not approve any aircraft unless it meets our safety and certification standards,” the agency said.
By Dominic Gates
Plataforma Informativa de Aviación Comercial líder en América Latina.