Boeing MAX heads to new test flights in China

Chinese aviation officials have indicated they are willing to conduct flight tests on Boeing’s 737 MAX, a step towards lifting the plane’s immobilization in that country after more than two years, according to people familiar with the matter.

Details of a validation flight for the MAX in China are still being worked out, but the talks are a sign of possible progress in what has become a long standoff on the plane, said the people, who have asked not to be identified as the discussions are private.

Boeing is preparing to send a delegation of around 35 pilots and engineers to meet with regulators in late July after suffering weeks of quarantine, one of the people said.

It could still take several months after such a flight before Chinese air regulators finish their job and lift the flight ban – especially if there is no break in heightened trade tensions between the two largest economies. of the world.

Chinese regulators said in March they had “major concerns” about the aircraft, including design changes, new pilot training and the causes of the two MAX crashes. But they have explained little why they take as long to assess the redesign and clean the plane as regulators in the United States, Europe and Canada. Their lengthy scrutiny has fueled speculation that politics is a factor now that the plane has been cleared by more than 170 countries.

“It has nothing to do with aviation, safety or aviation safety,” said Richard Aboulafia, a longtime aerospace industry observer at the Teal Group, in a recent interview. “It’s way above our pay levels, way above our heads. It’s geopolitics.

The fate of the plane is not only entangled in US-China relations, but it is also seen as a possible bargaining chip in negotiations between the two countries over aviation trade issues and new orders. planes.

China is relying heavily on American technology for its new flagship airliner, which is expected to make its commercial debut later this year. And China will need US approval if it ever exports the C919 aircraft, while US manufacturers like General Electric stand to benefit as the 737 MAX counterpart moves forward.

The implications are huge for Boeing, which is relying on the commercial return of the 737 MAX to fund the company’s financial turnaround and help it pay off its $ 64 billion debt. A long hiatus in US jet production could weigh on President Joe Biden’s pledge to boost domestic employment.

Another person familiar with the talks said Chinese officials are in talks to conduct MAX simulator sessions, but declined to say what the prospects for an actual flight are.

Simulator testing and flight tests preceded the decision to lift the ban in the United States and Europe, but some countries did not require them before allowing the aircraft to resume normal operations.

A spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Administration of China said the agency had no update to provide on the progress towards bringing the MAX back to service in the country.

Boeing did not specifically address China when asked about the potential of a test flight, only saying it was working with aviation regulators around the world. “We refer you to these regulators for more information,” the company said in an emailed statement.

China was the first country to bring the MAX to a standstill, acting within hours of a fatal crash in Ethiopia on March 10, 2019, and has not allowed the single-aisle hobbyhorse to fly since, slashing sales of it. planes in Boeing’s largest overseas market. The United States Federal Aviation Administration lifted the detention in November, and the European Aviation Safety Agency and Transport Canada followed in January.

Under the aviation treaty agreements, the FAA has played a leading role in recertifying the MAX, working closely with the handful of countries that have existing airliner manufacturing sectors. As has happened with other countries, China has an opportunity to validate the work of the FAA under the treaty.

The FAA has provided China with technical information on the work, according to the people.

Typically, one of the last steps before certification is a test flight. FAA, EASA and Transport Canada pilots all performed such flights shortly before lifting their flight bans.

Boeing has already sent delegations to China since the grounding and there is no guarantee that recent talks will result in the lifting of the flight ban.

The MAX was grounded for 18 months in the United States after the second of two crashes; 346 people were killed in the two crashes. Both crashes were at least in part caused by a malfunctioning flight control system, repeatedly causing the plane to dive on its own.

The system has since been redesigned to prevent it from repeatedly activating and to add redundancy so that it is less susceptible to malfunction, among other changes.

Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun has warned that a prolonged trade standoff threatens his plans to increase production next year of the 737 MAX, the Chicago-based company’s main source of income. The manufacturer’s long-standing role as an American industrial champion and largest exporter is also threatened.

If the company is not allowed to serve the Chinese market, it will “cede global leadership,” Calhoun said last month. “I’ll never give up on this. But it’s going to create real problems for us over the next couple of years if we can’t unfreeze some of the trade structure. “

The United States “is absolutely working on” pushing China to switch to MAX, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said last month in an interview with Bloomberg Television.

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