NEW YORK – In the latest hurdle confronting Boeing Co.’s bid to get its grounded 737 MAX fleet back in the air, federal regulators now intend to inspect and sign off on every jet individually before delivery to airlines.
The move, spelled out Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration in a letter to the plane maker, signals that resuming MAX flights will be more complicated and perhaps time-consuming than previously projected.
The FAA stripped Boeing of longstanding authority to perform such routine, pre-delivery safety checks and signoffs of MAX planes on its own, amounting to another public pushback by the agency to company pressure to accelerate the reinstatement.
It isn’t clear how much of a delay the change is likely to create. Some of the fallout is symbolic, while the eventual impact will partly depend on how effectively Boeing prepares jets removed from service and partly on the availability of FAA employees to process steps to get them back in the air.
The decision comes as industry officials world-wide increasingly question whether initial MAX deliveries are probable before year’s end.
In an email, a Boeing spokesman said: “We continue to work with the FAA on the safe return to service of the MAX fleet.”
Even if Boeing receives the FAA’s signoff on software fixes to flight-control computers and begins a trickle of MAX deliveries in December, it is expected to take additional weeks for the FAA and foreign regulators to complete associated changes in pilot training.
But the language in the letter, signed by John Piccola, head of the FAA’s Boeing oversight office, and sent to Elizabeth Pasztor, a senior company compliance official, raises doubts about Boeing’s overall safety practices and safeguards.
The letter extends the revised delivery procedures to newly manufactured MAX aircraft, an area that hasn’t received stepped-up public scrutiny in the past.
According to the letter, the FAA made the decision because the current backlog of some 600 MAX jets in storage around the globe poses challenges that “significantly exceed any that the Boeing system has previously experienced.”
Boeing will need to vet the planes it has stored, as well as assisting airlines to prepare planes to resume commercial service that have been sitting idle for eight months.
In addition, the letter said that, going forward, the FAA will have sole authority “to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates” for all 737 MAX models. Without such paperwork, airlines typically won’t pay Boeing for delivering jets.
“At a minimum,” the letter indicates, the agency won’t return authority for such pre-delivery approvals to Boeing until the company’s “737 MAX compliance, design and production processes meet all regulatory standards” to ensure public safety.