Boeing invites pilots, regulators to briefing as it looks to return 737 MAX to service

ADDIS ABABA/SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Boeing Co will brief more than 200 global airline pilots, technical leaders and regulators this week on software and training updates for its 737 MAX aircraft, as Ethiopian Airlines expressed confidence in the planemaker despite a recent crash.

FILE PHOTO: An aerial photo shows Boeing 737 MAX airplanes parked at the Boeing Factory in Renton, Washington, U.S. March 21, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

The carrier will work with Boeing and other airlines to make air travel safer, its chief executive, Tewolde Gebremariam, said, after regulators this month grounded the worldwide fleet of the aircraft following a crash that killed 157 people.

“Despite the tragedy, Boeing and Ethiopian Airlines will continue to be linked well into the future,” he said in a statement on Monday. “Ethiopian Airlines believes in Boeing. They have been a partner of ours for many years.”

However, many questions on the 737 MAX “remain without answers”, Tewolde added, and a spokesman for the carrier said it had no “immediate plans” to attend the Boeing session, without giving further details.

Wednesday’s meeting is a sign that Boeing is nearing completion on a planned software patch required to return the grounded fleet to commercial service, though it will still need approval from regulators.

The session in Renton, Washington is part of an effort to reach all current, and many future, 737 MAX operators and their home regulators to discuss software and training updates to the jet, Boeing said in a statement.

The 737 MAX is Boeing’s best-selling plane, with orders worth more than $500 billion at list prices.

Garuda Indonesia was invited to the briefing, Chief Executive Ari Askhara told Reuters on Monday. Last week, Indonesia’s national carrier said it planned to cancel its order for 49 737 MAX jets, citing a loss of passenger trust.

“We were informed on Friday, but because it is short notice we can’t send a pilot,” Askhara said, adding that the airline had requested a webinar with Boeing, only to be rejected.

A Boeing spokeswoman said the meeting formed part of a series of in-person information sessions.

“We have been scheduling, and will continue to arrange, additional meetings to communicate with all current, and many future, MAX customers and operators,” she said.

Garuda, which has only one 737 MAX, had been reconsidering its order before the Ethiopian crash, as had fellow Indonesian carrier Lion Air, which suffered a crash in October that killed all 189 aboard.

Boeing had informed the airline of the meeting but it might not attend, said Lion Air Managing Director Daniel Putut, who declined further comment.

Singapore Airlines Ltd said its offshoot, SilkAir, which operates the 737 MAX, had received an invitation to the meeting and would send representatives.

Representatives of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore will also attend, a spokeswoman for the regulator said.

Korean Air Lines Co Ltd, which, before the grounding, had been due to receive its first 737 MAX in April, said it planned to send pilots to Renton. South Korean low-cost carrier Eastar Jet will send two pilots, a spokesman said.

On Saturday, teams from the three U.S. airlines that own 737 MAX jets joined a session in Renton reviewing a planned software upgrade.

Flydubai representatives attended that session and some will also attend this week’s meeting, a spokeswoman for the Dubai-based airline said.

A U.S. official briefed on the matter on Saturday said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had not yet signed off on the software upgrade and training but aimed to review and approve them by April.

It remained unclear whether the software upgrade, called “design changes” by the FAA, will resolve concerns stemming from the investigation into the March 10 Ethiopian Airlines crash.

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Tewolde, the airline’s chief executive, said until there were more answers about the 737 MAX, the planes should remain grounded, adding, “Putting one more life at risk is too much.”

The U.S. official said planned changes included 15 minutes of training to help pilots deactivate the anti-stall system known as MCAS in the event of faulty sensor data or other issues. It also included some self-guided instruction, the official added.

Reporting by Jason Neely in Addis Ababa and Jamie Freed in Singapore; additional reporting by Cindy Silviana in Jakarta, Heekyong Yang in Seoul, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago and David Shepardson in Washington; Writing by Jamie Freed; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez

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