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FAA starts bid to restore confidence in 737 Max - and itself

Washington, D.C.

THE Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Monday took a potentially important step towards rebuilding confidence not only in the Boeing 737 Max but also in the agency that approved it as safe to fly by convening a week-long summit of civil aviation regulators from Brussels to Beijing.

Led by former National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Christopher Hart, delegates from eight overseas nations and the European Union are meeting in Seattle to examine the FAA's original certification of the B737 Max, including the automated flight control system linked to two crashes by the jet since October that killed a combined 346 people.

"The point of this body is to attempt to instil confidence globally in the 737 Max and the agency that certified it," said Jeffrey Guzzetti, the former director of the FAA's Accident Investigation Division, who is not on the panel.

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Boeing and its regulator have been subjected to withering scrutiny from lawmakers, government watchdogs and prosecutors amid the B737 Max's worldwide grounding, now entering its seventh week. Much of that has been focused on how much was known about the B737 Max's anti-stall countermeasure and how much sway Boeing had in the jet's certification by the FAA.

Last month, more than 40 nations from the UK to Australia rejected public reassurances from the FAA after the second crash and grounded Boeing Co's 737 Max jet before the FAA followed suit. It was a remarkable rebuke of an American agency that has been a leader since the dawn of the jet age.

That defiance may not be over. Whatever the FAA decides, South Korean authorities plan to determine independently whether the Max should be cleared to fly again in the country's airspace, according to an official at the country's transport ministry. The official was not allowed to speak publicly and declined to be identified.

South Korea also plans to closely monitor the steps taken by aviation regulators in Europe and in particular, China, since it was the first country to ground the B737 Max, the official said.

Lawsuits against Boeing filed on Monday by two Canadians whose family members died in the March 10 crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 also called the FAA "equally culpable" in the accidents for approving the Max "despite its substantial flaws".

"The relationship between Boeing and the FAA left a lot of questions," said Michael Barr, an aviation safety specialist at the University of Southern California. "They need a third party, a neutral party, with a lot of respect in the industry to evaluate that relationship and see whether or not there needs to be a change."

The panel aims to do so quickly. The so-called Joint Authorities Technical Review (JATR) has been asked to complete its findings within 90 days, far faster than the ongoing inquiries and audits by accident investigators, government watchdogs, prosecutors and lawmakers.

The review panel was asked by FAA to "conduct a comprehensive review of the certification of the automated flight control system on the Boeing 737 Max aircraft", the agency said in a statement on April 3 announcing the effort. It can also make recommendations for improvements on the plane, according to FAA.

The panel includes representatives from Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, the EU, Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and the United Arab Emirates.

Efforts to reach participants in the session were not successful. Before the meeting, the president of Dubai's civil aviation authority, Sheikh Ahmed Bin Saeed Al Maktoum, told reporters at the 2019 Arabian Travel Market convention in Dubai that he still had questions about the plane.

"We want to know exactly what's happening, the details. There are still areas that aren't being answered 100 per cent yet," said Sheikh Ahmed, who is also the chairman of Emirates Airline, the world's biggest long-haul carrier. "Communication with Boeing could be better," he added. BLOOMBERG