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Singapore —Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration are not yet in the final stretch of the 737 Max grounding, but the path toward the end of the nearly year-long global moratorium on flying the jet has been laid out by the U.S. aviation regulator’s top official.

In a roundtable with a small group of media, including The Air Current, here on the first day of the Singapore Airshow, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson reiterated the agency’s unwillingness to put a timeline to the conclusion of the most serious safety crisis to face modern commercial aviation.

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“It’s important that we stay focused on the process and not on a timeline,” said Dickson. Given how unpredictable the process of recertifying the Max has been since its March 2019 grounding, “we don’t know what issues may arise.”

Related: FAA pushes back on ‘pressure’ to return Boeing 737 Max to service

Boeing earlier in January pushed its anticipated return of the jet to mid-2020 in an effort to reset industry expectations and calm an increasingly tense relationship with the U.S. aviation regulator. Dickson in November had pushed back on perceived “pressure” to unground the jet by the end of 2019 and was privately frustrated, according to U.S officials, the with the documents Boeing was providing for formal evaluation. Dickson said he was more satisfied with the information now coming from the plane maker. “I would say in recent weeks, what we are seeing, is that the submissions are complete and more integrated,” he said.

Narrowing the issues

Before the FAA makes its official certification flight, kicking off the last phase of the recertification, Boeing still has outstanding items to fix before the final aerial evaluation. “We still have a few issues to resolve, but continue to narrow the issues.”

A stabilizer trim indicator light that “tends to flicker” when the trim is running very quickly in normal operation, said Dickson, is “coming on at inappropriate times and it’s essentially getting overloaded with data, we think. And so [Boeing] will have to buffer that a little bit.”

Additionally, concerns over the jet’s wiring and the potential for short circuits of the trim system need to be addressed. “Boeing has not yet given us a proposal on that,” Dickson said. He added that it wasn’t yet clear if the wiring issues are common to the 737 Next Generation and if the aircraft’s early service history will assuage any concerns. “There are a number of ways Boeing can approach this, but again, until we see what their proposal is, it’s difficult to say where that will go.”

Certification flight

The certification flight with Boeing’s 737 Max 7 test aircraft and its subsequent evaluation is “the next major milestone,” said Dickson. That flight, flown by FAA pilots will evaluate “the compliance of the final software to FAA transport category aircraft regulations.” Dickson said an analysis will follow and be completed “within a few days.” The flight will not be scheduled until other issues with the jet’s software and wiring are satisfactorily resolved.

While Dickson provided estimated durations for many of the major outstanding tasks, there was still uncertainty in how long the remaining process might take. “We’ve got to have a completed certification flight first before a lot of these other things can happen. So if you look at it as a stream of work, it starts to break into parallel streams once you get to that point.”

JOEB & FSB

With the FAA flight and its analysis completed, the process will then move to the final Joint Operations Evaluation Board (JOEB) to determine the final minimum training requirements for re-certifying pilots to fly the 737 Max. “That can’t happen until the certification flight” is completed, said Dickson.

The JOEB process includes conducting simulator profiles to evaluate the human factors elements of the revised training. Dickson said that’s expected to take nine to 10 days to complete.

Related: Pilot procedure confusion adds new complication to Boeing 737 Max return

Dickson said both he and Deputy Administrator Dan Elwell will both complete the training as well, but added: “We don’t want to have our thumb on the scale. We’ve got international crews and U.S. crews coming in to evaluate those proposals and we’ll have to see how they perform and whether any modification to the Boeing proposal is made.”

The result will be an addendum to the Flight Standardization Board (FSB) report defining the minimum training requirements for crews, which include Boeing’s pending recommendation to require simulator training for all pilots prior to flying again. “Unless there are some surprises, it’s a few days after that to get the report written.” That will be followed by 15 days for public comment. “From beginning to end, the JOEB and the FSB report process is roughly probably 30 days,” said Dickson.

Documentation and advisory boards

With the certification flight complete, Boeing will provide the final design documentation to the FAA. Dickson said a report is also forthcoming from the Technical Advisory Board which acts as an “independent crosscheck” of the regulator’s work. The FAA will also finalize the Master Minimum Equipment List (MMEL), which has been out for comment since December 5.

CANIC & Ungrounding Order

With all that complete, the FAA will issue the Continued Airworthiness Notification to the International Community (CANIC), the “notice of pending safety actions” as a heads-up to global regulators and international airlines. Dickson said the final Airworthiness Directive, the official order that will rescind the grounding, will follow one to two days after the CANIC. The AD will spell out all the changes required for the Max and the new minimum pilot training requirements for U.S. crews.

When the ungrounding is officially over, the FAA will issue a certificate of airworthiness one airplane at a time. And for the U.S. airlines, each will have to get their individual training programs approved. Once the FSB report is finalized, airlines will begin to develop curricula for their respective flight training departments, but each will have to come back to the FAA to propose how they’ll accomplish their training after the final FAA ungrounding order is given.

Write to Jon Ostrower at jon@theaircurrent.com

Jon Ostrower is Editor-in-chief of The Air Current. Prior to launching TAC in June 2018, Ostrower served as Aviation Editor for CNN Worldwide, guiding the network's global coverage of the business and operations of flying. Ostrower joined CNN in 2016 following four and half years at the Wall Street Journal. Based first in Chicago and then in Washington, D.C. he covered Boeing, aviation safety and the business of global aerospace. Before that, Ostrower was editor of the award-winning FlightBlogger for Flightglobal and Flight International Magazine covering the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other new aircraft programs from 2007 to 2012. Ostrower, a Boston native, graduated from The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs with a bachelor's degree in Political Communication. He is based in Seattle.

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