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American Airlines Devising Extra Simulator Training for Boeing 737 Cockpit Crews--Update

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04/15/2019 | 05:49pm EDT

By Andy Pasztor

American Airlines Group Inc., after saying for months that its pilots didn't need additional ground-simulator experience on Boeing Co. 737 MAX jets, plans to include such instruction in training sessions for the aircraft, according to industry officials.

The decision, these officials said, means as soon as late summer, American 737 MAX pilots will start encountering some simulator scenarios tied to problems with an automated flight-control system, called MCAS, that has been implicated in two fatal nose-dives of the plane in less than five months.

The enhanced training also will deal with similar emergency situations in which the movement of flight-control surfaces on the jet's tail need to be adjusted or halted by the crew.

American's choice highlights growing differences between carriers -- and in American's case, with federal air-safety regulators -- regarding the best way to ensure flight crews will be able to safely operate 737 MAX jets once they resume service.

At this point, the Federal Aviation Administration isn't planning to mandate simulator training targeting potential MCAS misfires. American's voluntary effort to go beyond minimum federal requirements hasn't been reported before.

Southwest Airlines Co. and United Continental Holdings Inc., the other U.S. carriers with MAX aircraft, don't intend to adopt similar training changes, the officials said. Some overseas carriers, however, have signaled they may opt for enhanced simulator training.

In the immediate wake of a Lion Air jet crash in Indonesia in October, American said it continued "to believe the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft is safe and that our pilots are well-trained and well-equipped to operate it."

American's pilots were critical of Boeing for not providing enough information initially about the MCAS system, but determined that they had learned enough about how MCAS worked to continue flying the plane without additional simulator training.

On Sunday, a spokesman for American Airlines said the carrier is "looking at the potential for additional training opportunities" in coordination with the FAA and representatives of the pilot union.

A Southwest spokeswoman said the airline's current training covers operating in conditions present during "an MCAS misfire." She added, "We briefed our pilots on MCAS post-Lion Air and emphasized the training for operating in unreliable airspeed conditions."

On Monday, United said, "Our training is consistently refreshed and updated, and we will make any updates to our training necessary should the FAA decide more is required as part of their ongoing investigation."

Within weeks of the Lion Air crash, American already was working behind the scenes on possible training changes. Without any prodding from the FAA, the carrier's safety and training experts began considering possible additional simulator training, according to internal FAA documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

According to one email at the time from a senior FAA inspector, the carrier was developing new simulator scenarios for the MCAS system malfunctions and potential consequences. The email added that FAA and American officials determined "it would be better to wait for further guidance" from the plane maker and agency certification experts before proceeding to develop full-blown simulator scenarios.

The carrier, according to one industry official familiar with the details, didn't follow through with the proposal at the time, because managers decided there was too much uncertainty about the cause of the Lion Air crash. But now, after a second fatal 737 MAX crash -- in Ethiopia in March -- in which MCAS was implicated, American is working in earnest to implement extra simulator training for MCAS-related events, this official said.

Specifically, the training will expand on how and when to manually rotate a wheel in the cockpit to adjust a movable tail surface called a horizontal stabilizer.

The two crashes claimed 346 lives and rocked the aviation world, as in both cases the MCAS system automatically pushed down the plane's nose and overpowered pilot commands to pull up.

In coming weeks, Boeing is expected to roll out, and the FAA is expected to bless, a software fix aimed at making MCAS less potent and more controllable by aviators. The agency also will mandate some interactive, computer-based training pilots can complete on laptops or other electronic devices.

The outlines of that computer training are spelled out in internal agency documents. The documents also address the FAA's determination that no enhanced simulator training will be required for the 737 MAX because it handles close to the way earlier 737 versions do.

United has been using spare planes to cover most of the flying done its fleet of 14 737 MAX-9 jets. But on Monday the carrier said it would pull MAX flights out of its schedules through July, citing uncertainty about the regulatory process.

"We won't put our customers and employees on that plane until regulators make their own independent assessment that it is safe to do so," the airline said in a statement. Southwest and American both announced in recent days that they would pull their 737 MAX jets from schedules into August.

Over the months, Boeing has said properly trained pilots were the ultimate safeguard in case the MCAS system malfunctioned. But some safety experts have disputed that position.

"In the end, no amount of experience, training, education or motivation can overcome problems of a poor design," according to Najmedin Meshkati, a professor and human-factors specialist who teaches air-safety courses at the University of Southern California.

President Trump on Monday weighed in with marketing advice for Boeing. On Twitter, Mr. Trump urged the aircraft maker to "fix the 737 MAX, add some additional great features & rebrand the plane with a new name. No product has suffered like this one."

Boeing responded with a statement: "We're focused on testing and implementing the software update, finalizing pilot training materials, and rebuilding trust with our airline customers and the traveling public. We know we have a deep responsibility to everyone who flies on our airplanes to ensure that the MAX is one of the safest aircraft ever to fly."

--Alison Sider and Andrew Tangel contributed to this article.

Write to Andy Pasztor at andy.pasztor@wsj.com

Stocks mentioned in the article
ChangeLast1st jan.
AMERICAN AIRLINES GROUP 1.81% 34.22 Delayed Quote.4.67%
BOEING COMPANY (THE) 0.32% 362.75 Delayed Quote.13.28%
BOEING COMPANY (THE) 0.00% 330 Delayed Quote.3.18%
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Financials (USD)
Sales 2019 46 171 M
EBIT 2019 3 826 M
Net income 2019 2 225 M
Debt 2019 23 440 M
Yield 2019 1,23%
P/E ratio 2019 6,73x
P/E ratio 2020 5,67x
EV / Sales2019 0,83x
EV / Sales2020 0,76x
Capitalization 14 951 M
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William Douglas Parker Chairman & Chief Executive Officer
Robert D. Isom President
Derek J. Kerr Chief Financial & Accounting Officer, Executive VP
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