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Boeing CEO sees 'endgame' in drive to lift 737 Max grounding

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Mr Muilenburg is shaking up Boeing's organisational structure to sharpen its focus on safety.

Chicago

BOEING Co is in the "endgame" of preparing its 737 Max to return to the commercial market after two deadly crashes prompted a global grounding more than six months ago, chief executive officer Dennis Muilenburg said.

The planemaker is fine-tuning a software upgrade for the Max's flight-control computers in its simulation lab and girding for the evaluation of a final version by line pilots. The company is discussing the timing of the certification flight with US officials, although no date has been set.

That's the final hurdle before the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) determines whether the flying ban can be lifted, Mr Muilenburg said on Monday.

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The CEO is also shaking up Boeing's organisational structure to sharpen its focus on safety after the Ethiopian and Lion Air tragedies, although the moves stop short of the leadership purge sought by some victim advocates.

"I'm very confident in the team we have," Mr Muilenburg said, pointing to a series of personnel changes the company has quietly made since March.

The new appointments range from the head of the 737 programme, to a vice president of engineering for the commercial airplane business and its supply-chain chief. "We're always putting our best people in the toughest assignments, and that's the case here."

Acting on a recommendation from the board, Mr Muilenburg is creating a new product and services safety organisation to centralise responsibilities across the planemaker's business and operating units.

The new group will be run by Beth Pasztor, a 34-year Boeing veteran who will report to the company's chief engineer as well as a new board committee. Such an arrangement should alert directors of emerging safety and certification matters.

Ms Pasztor will have sweeping responsibility for all aspects of product safety, including investigating concerns raised anonymously by employees, Boeing said in a statement on Monday.

The company's accident-investigation team, safety-review boards and engineering and technical experts who represent the FAA in aircraft certification will all report to Ms Pasztor, who previously oversaw product safety at Boeing's jetliner division.

"Beth is a proven leader, she's a collaborator," Mr Muilenburg said in an interview from the 36th-floor executive suite in the company's Chicago office tower. He also considered external candidates before deciding that Ms Pasztor's deep knowledge of Boeing would give her a running start. "She, from a technical qualification standpoint, is the best."

The CEO is under pressure to show airlines, travellers and global regulators that safety is woven into the century-old manufacturer's designs and culture. Both have been called into question given the lapses that have prompted regulators to ground two brand-new Boeing jetliners this decade.

The company had already rung up US$8.3 billion in Max-related expenses through July, and the costs of maintaining production and compensating customers are certain to grow the longer the grounding lasts.

The final steps to lifting the ban are clearly defined, and timing will be determined by the FAA, Mr Muilenburg said. Once a final version of the flight control computer update is ready, Boeing will invite airline pilots to test-fly it in the company's engineering simulators known as e-cabs. A separate team of pilots will review the company's updated training material. After that FAA pilots will test the changes in a Boeing 737 Max bristling with sensors and other flight-testing equipment.

"That's the certification endgame," Mr Muilenburg said. "We're still marching to a timeline of return to service early in the fourth quarter, but I want to reiterate the timing will be determined by regulators."

The Max hasn't flown commercially since just after the March crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet. A Lion Air plane went down off the coast of Indonesia in October.

In both disasters, a once-obscure flight-control system went haywire, nudging the planes' noses down until pilots were overwhelmed.

In 2013, the 787 Dreamliner was banned for three months after fires on two planes from lithium-ion batteries.

Directors last week signalled that they would closely monitor the company's progress under Mr Muilenburg. A new board committee is devoted to overseeing the safe design, development and production of the company's aerospace product line-up. "Safety-related experience" will be a criteria to be considered in choosing future directors.

"This is an engineering company, it needs an engineering culture and engineering management," aerospace analyst Richard Aboulafia said last week. "It deviated pretty far from this at the time when the Max was being developed." BLOOMBERG