By Andy Pasztor
Boeing Co. and U.S. air-safety regulators have been at odds over how much pilot training will be required in conjunction with a coming software fix for a flight-control feature at the center of the global grounding of the company's 737 MAX jets, according to people familiar with the details.
Before the end of this month the plane maker plans to release, and the Federal Aviation Administration expects to mandate, new software revising operation of the automated stall-prevention feature known as MCAS. That feature is implicated in the October crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX shortly after takeoff from Jakarta, killing all 189 people on board.
Investigators are examining whether the same automated feature played a role in Sunday's crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX in which all 157 people on board died
Boeing has been advocating comparatively limited training, the people said, consisting of new, written materials aviators would receive explaining operation of the automated stall-prevention feature -- and how to respond if it malfunctions.
But the FAA, they said, increasingly is pushing for more extensive training, consisting of pilots engaging in self-guided instruction on a laptop computer; the computer-based instruction would include more details and require more time to complete than reading a handout.
The second option gained momentum, according to one of the people involved in the discussions, after ground-simulator sessions sponsored by the FAA this past week to validate the changes, making sure average pilots know what the changes mean and how to respond.
"The more detailed training pilots get, the better it is for safety," said a veteran air-safety expert tracking the debate who has been in contact with the FAA.
One person involved in the discussions said an internal FAA decision had been made to require the more extensive training, but hadn't been communicated to the relevant parties.
The upshot of the ground-simulator sessions, this person said, were doubts about the adequacy of Boeing's approach, setting the stage for further efforts to devise and validate computer-based instruction.
None of the options under consideration would include additional time training pilots in flight simulators, which would be more expensive and disruptive.
A Boeing spokesman didn't have any immediate comment. In the past, Boeing said its manuals and training related to the 737 MAX flight-control features followed a process consistent with how it previously introduced new airplanes and derivatives. The company also has said it aimed to ensure all flight crews have all the information they need to safely operate the aircraft.
The latest timetable for FAA action had been sped up by several weeks, according to these people, amid the turmoil the groundings have sparked throughout the aviation industry and the flying public.
Meanwhile, investigators delving into the Ethiopian accident seek to determine the significance of a part found in the wreckage -- called a jackscrew -- whose position indicates that a horizontal panel on the jet's tail was pointing the nose down to its maximum angle at the time of impact.
The position of that part, which controls the horizontal stabilizer, could have various causes, from activation of the MCAS feature to a separate malfunction of the stabilizer trim system to manual pilot commands for some other reason. Data retrieved from the plane's black-box recorders, which were being worked on in a French accident lab Friday, are expected to provide definitive answers.
The jackscrew was the specific part acting FAA chief Daniel Elwell was referring to as an important clue when he briefed reporters Wednesday about the agency's decision to ground the MAX 737, according to a person familiar with his thinking.
Testing and validation of the proposed software changes is likely among the reasons the fix for the automated stall-prevention feature -- discussed for months and initially expected by early January -- is pending
The software changes are intended to prevent a potentially hazardous activation of the system, which in rare circumstances can repeatedly push down the nose of an aircraft and even put it into an uncontrollable dive, unless pilots react quickly and appropriately. The MCAS feature, new on the latest model of the workhorse 737 fleet, has generated controversy partly due to complaints by pilots and airlines that Boeing failed to adequately explain or highlight it in its manual.
But before the long-discussed fix can be implemented, the FAA has to sign off on a package that establishes the type and extent of training pilots will need to receive.
The most important element of the pending software revisions is that in the future, MCAS is expected to use feeds from a pair of sensors measuring the angle of the plane's nose -- instead of the current reliance on a single sensor. The change was prompted by preliminary findings in the Lion Air crash probe, showing that incorrect data fed into a flight-control computer from a single sensor precipitated the deadly chain of events.
The pending software fix also will limit the number of times in succession the MCAS system can push down a plane's nose and lengthen the interval between such automated commands, according to the person involved in the discussions.
Some Boeing officials were informed about the training decision earlier this week, this person said, but other government and industry officials briefed on the matter said they weren't aware a formal determination had been made.
An official of a major U.S. airline tracking developments said Friday that his briefings indicated that Boeing and the FAA hadn't finally resolved the training requirements
Separately, Boeing said in its annual proxy filed Friday that there is a shareholder proposal to create an independent chairman. A similar proposal was made last year and soundly rejected by shareholders.
This year's proposal says an independent chairman would allow the chief executive to focus on important day-to-day issues such as "the Boeing 737 MAX Lion Air crash potentially due in part to faulty anti-stall protections."
--Andrew Tangel contributed to this article.
Write to Andy Pasztor at firstname.lastname@example.org