Boeing had good and bad news this week. The airframer landed a major order from long-time customer WestJet yet also learned that U.S. regulators are unlikely to certify the last two models of the 737 Max, which together have billions-of-dollars worth of orders, before a critical year-end deadline.
The developments are the latest Boeing’s Max saga. Following the grounding of the planes after two fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration has taken a slow and deliberate approach to, first, re-certifying the models that were already flying, and, second, certifying the two remaining variants that Boeing has developed. The latter two models, the 737-7 and -10, remain under review by the FAA despite a Congressional requirement that they are certified by the end of 2022 or be subject to newer, more stringent cockpit safety rules.
Washington, D.C., area-based Boeing has hundreds of orders for the two Max models. At the end of June, there were at least 270 orders for the 737-7 from Allegiant Air, Southwest Airlines, and others. And more than 350 for the 737-10 from the likes of Gol, United Airlines, and Virgin Australia.
Boeing, for its part, appears to be playing the hand it has being the U.S.’ largest industrial exporter in maneuvering around that year-end requirement. The WestJet order for up to 64 737-10s on Thursday is the latest in recent months that also includes Delta Air Lines’ deal for up to 130 aircraft in July, and International Airlines Group in May. All of these deals place pressure on at least Congress to move the certification goalpost given the increasing unlikelihood that the FAA will sign off on either model by December 31.
“I would urge everyone — Congress, the FAA — that that commonality is the bellwether for us,” said Mahendra Nair, senior vice president of fleet at Delta, in July in response to questions over certification. His reference to commonality referred to the design changes that would be required if Boeing’s waiver from more stringent safety rules for the 737-10 lapsed and major changes to the cockpit — and pilot training — were required compared to other 737 models.
Boeing’s gambit appears to be working, at least to a degree. While the FAA reaffirmed that it’s certification process would not be subject to “arbitrary calendar” dates, as the regulator’s executive director for aviation safety Lirio Liu put it in a letter to Boeing on September 19, Congress appears more amenable. Senator Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) filed an amendment Thursday to a defense bill that would extend Boeing’s waiver to September 30, 2024, The Seattle Times reported.
Wicker submitted a number of amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act on Thursday, according to Congressional records. However, the text of those amendments is not yet available.
The moves and countermoves come after Liu’s letter all but quashed the possibility of certifying the 737-7 and -10 by the end of the year. As of September 19, Boeing had yet to submit all of the requested system assessments to the FAA that the regulator needed in order to sign off on the aircraft; only 10 percent had been accepted and another 70 percent were in review. He added that all of the assessments were needed by mid-September if a year-end deadline was to be considered.
“There are a lot of resources that are working very hard to get the -7 and the -10 certified, answering the questions from the regulators,” Boeing Chief Financial Officer Brian West said at an investor event on September 15. “There’s good constructive collaboration with the FAA.”
He added that, in terms of the imminent safety waiver expiration, it was “top of the list of things that we’re trying to mitigate risk around.”
With WestJet, the Canadian discounter committed to 42 firm 737-10s plus 22 options from Boeing. The airline now has a 65 firm orders for the 737 Max, plus the 17 aircraft already in its fleet. WestJet will take delivery of new 737s through 2028 under the terms of its deal.