Regulators fail to set date for Boeing 737 MAX return to service

Boeing had held off submitting a proposed software fix for review after the US Federal Aviation Administration raised additional questions. (AFP)
Updated 24 May 2019
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Regulators fail to set date for Boeing 737 MAX return to service

  • ‘The only timetable is to make sure the aircraft is safe to fly’
  • Boeing had held off submitting a proposed software fix for review after the US Federal Aviation Administration raised additional questions

FORT WORTH, United States: Civil aviation regulators from around the world failed to make a determination Thursday on when Boeing’s popular 737 MAX aircraft can return to the skies after being grounded following two deadly crashes.
“The only timetable is to make sure the aircraft is safe to fly,” Daniel Elwell, acting head of the US Federal Aviation Administration, said at the conclusion of the day-long meeting in Texas.
There was “enthusiastic agreement to continue the dialogue,” he said, but acknowledged that “each country has to make its own decision.”
“If they unground relatively close to when we unground I think it would help with public confidence,” Elwell said, while adding that: “We can’t be driven by some arbitrary timeline.”
Until the 737 MAX crashes in Ethiopia in March and Indonesia in October which left a combined 346 people dead, common practice was that air regulators would follow the assessment of the agency overseeing the model, in this case the FAA.
On Wednesday, Elwell threw cold water on hopes of a speedy resolution, after revealing Boeing had held off submitting a proposed software fix for review after his agency raised additional questions.
“Once we have addressed the information requests from the FAA, we will be ready to schedule a certification test flight and submit final certification documentation,” Boeing said in a statement.
Investigators have focused on the MAX’s anti-stall Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System in inquiries into the two deadly crashes.
Boeing last week said the MCAS update was ready for the certification process, and US airlines were hoping the planes could be back in the skies in time for part of the summer travel season.
But Elwell on Thursday said the process could take one month, two months or longer.
“It is all determined by what we find in our analysis of the application,” he said on CNBC.
Once Boeing has submitted all documentation, the FAA will conduct a test flight and detailed analysis to evaluate the safety of the software.
Richard Aboulafia, an aviation analyst at Teal Group, said Boeing wants to avoid having to repeat the process.
“There’s a lot at stake in terms of the first impression by the world’s regulators,” he told AFP.
US air carriers that operate the 737 MAX, including American Airlines, Southwest and United, have said they hope to have the planes flying again by mid-August at the latest.
The FAA’s reputation has taken a beating since the March crash, and faced accusations of an overly cozy relationship with the aviation giant. Other aviation authorities now appear less likely to follow the US agency.
Michel Merluzeau of Air Insight Research, said American officials could end the 737 MAX’s grounding toward the end of summer, with authorities in other countries following suit “several months” later.
“We’re headed for a return to service that could drag on in time,” he said.
Elwell said regulators also have yet to decide on changes to pilot training once the adjustments have been approved.
The United States has differed with a number of countries on this issue, including Canada. Washington believes training on computers or tablets is sufficient for seasoned pilots but Ottawa wants to require training on flight simulators.
Transport Canada said it had “full confidence” in the FAA and its processes, but did not rule out the possibility that pilots of 737 MAX jets would be required to receive simulator training.
Nicholas Robinson, director-general of civil aviation, told Canadian media the training was a “possible option” but added it was too early to say if it would be mandatory.
The European Aviation Safety Agency, Canada and Brazil are among countries saying they will conduct their own evaluations of the MCAS fix.
What China, the first country to ground the 737 MAX, will do is also an unknown given the flare-up in trade frictions with the United States.
About five dozen representatives from 33 countries accepted the FAA’s invitation to attend the regulators’ conference in Texas.
Elwell said the closed-door meeting involved “frank questions and a frank discussion,” adding that his counterparts wanted “clarifications” on US procedures.
Regaining public trust will take time, according to opinion polls conducted by Southwest showing that many passengers are not yet ready to get back aboard a 737 MAX jet.
And pilots also have qualms.
“Before the Boeing MAX’s return to service, we need answers and transparency,” the European Cockpit Association said Thursday in a statement.
The organization, which represents 38,000 pilots from 36 countries, said it was “deeply disturbing” that the FAA and Boeing were considering a return to service while not disclosing “the many challenging questions prompted by the MAX design philosophy.”
Beyond Boeing’s reputation, the 737 MAX crisis comes at a major financial cost, given that the plane represented 80 percent of the company’s order backlog as of the end of last month.
The company, which has suspended deliveries, is only paid at the moment of delivery and will have to indemnify air carriers for losses.


‘Fuel of the future’ comes of age as Aramco opens first hydrogen filling station

Updated 17 June 2019
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‘Fuel of the future’ comes of age as Aramco opens first hydrogen filling station

  • Fatih Birol’s comments were a deliberate poke at those experts who think that the sheer logistics of hydrogen make it always an unlikely solution to global energy challenges
  • Birol’s article was followed by a report from the IEA that put some meat on the bones of the argument that hydrogen is key to solving problems such as global warming

DUBAI: Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency, cracked a joke in the Financial Times a couple of weeks ago.
“Hydrogen is the fuel of the future, and it always will be,” he wrote about the fuel that many experts agree could hold the key to the world’s energy problems.
It was a deliberate poke at those experts who think that the sheer logistics of hydrogen — generation, storage, and transportation — make it always an unlikely solution to global energy challenges.
Birol’s article was followed by a report from the IEA that put some meat on the bones of the argument that hydrogen is key to solving such problems as global warming and environmental degradation.
“The world has an important opportunity to tap into hydrogen’s vast potential to become a critical part of a more sustainable and secure energy future … The world should not miss this unique chance to make hydrogen an important part of our clean and secure energy future,” the report said.
That argument will get a critical boost today, when Saudi Aramco, the biggest oil company in the world, opens its first hydrogen fueling station in Dhahran Techno Valley, in the heart of the Kingdom’s oil producing region.
Aramco has partnered with Air Products, a US company that has been a pioneer in the use of industrial gases, to produce a filling station for hydrogen-fueled vehicles.

 

It is very much a test. “The collected data during this pilot phase of the project will provide valuable information for the assessment of future applications of this emerging transport technology in the local environment,” Aramco said when the project was first announced.
But it is something Aramco has been investigating for a long time. Ahmed Al-Khowaiter, Aramco’s chef technology officer, said: “The use of hydrogen derived from oil or gas to power fuel cell electric vehicles represents an exciting opportunity to expand the use of oil in clean transport.”
Hydrogen — essentially what is left when you take the oxygen out of water — has been recognized as a potential fuel source for many decades. Motor manufacturers developed a hydrogen motor engine 50 years ago, but the ease and accessibility of hydrocarbon fuels — oil, gas and coal — made it uneconomic to develop this technology beyond the prototype stage.
Now, as the debate over the role of hydrocarbons in the global environmental balance has become ever more intense, some experts, including Birol and other influential parts of the thought-leadership establishment, believe hydrogen is the next Big Thing in global energy trends.
The World Economic Forum (WEF) said recently that “green” hydrogen offers a solution to the world energy challenge, and that is the problem the theoreticians are struggling with: Hydrogen is released naturally in the process of burning hydrocarbons, but it is self-defeating, in an environmental sense. if you have to burn oil, gas or coal to produce it.
On the other hand, renewable sources, like sun, wind and water, do not produce enough hydrogen to be practically or commercially viable, and not at the right times, when people actually need it.
But, as the WEF noted recently “low-cost green hydrogen is coming”, as technology advances mean the cost of renewable energy falls dramatically each year. The Middle East already has a very big and very cost-efficient program for solar energy generation.
The other challenges lay in how to store and transport hydrogen. It can be loaded onto a tanker like LNG, or pushed through pipelines, but it would require a huge investment to change current logistics systems — essentially designed for oil and LNG — to handle hydrogen.
Many countries, including Saudi Arabia, already have the infrastructure associated with oil and gas refining and petrochemicals production to be able to equip “hydrogen hubs,” as long as there is government will and commercial incentive to do so.
For the Kingdom, it looks like a no-brainer for the future. As Birol said: “So, hydrogen offers tantalising promises of cleaner industry and emissions-free power. Turning it into energy produces only water, not greenhouse gases. It’s also the most abundant element in the universe. What’s not to like?”

FACTOID

Technological advances mean low-cost ‘green’ hydrogen offers a solution to the world energy challenge, according to the World Economic Forum.