Boeing Now Says All 737 MAX Pilots Will Need Costly Flight Simulator Training

(The Seattle Times/TNS) -
Some of the hundreds of completed Boeing 737 MAX planes destined for airlines worldwide are parked at an airport in Moses Lake. (Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/TNS)

Boeing on Tuesday reversed its long-held position that pilots would not need full flight simulator training before flying the 737 MAX after the jet is cleared to return to service.

“Boeing has decided to recommend MAX simulator training combined with computer-based training for all pilots prior to returning the MAX safely to service,” interim Boeing CEO Greg Smith said in a statement.

He added that the change in approach was spurred because “public, customer and stakeholder confidence in the 737 MAX is critically important to us.”

The prospect of extensive simulator training now adds another big logistical hurdle before the MAX can resume commercial flights. There are only 34 full-motion MAX simulators in the world, eight of them in the U.S., and tens of thousands of pilots who will need time on one. The impact depends on the details of the training requirements, such as how long and extensive the simulator training must be, which are still unknown.

Boeing’s change in direction was spurred by the results of four days of testing in Seattle last month, when Boeing ran pilots from American Airlines, Southwest, United and Aeromexico through a series of emergency flight scenarios in MAX flight simulators, a person familiar with the matter said. The purpose was to test the “human factors” elements of the updated flight control system, including the crew workload.

All of the pilots managed to eventually maintain control when confronted with various emergencies, including the type of system failure that occurred in the two fatal MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. However, about half of the pilots in the testing failed to follow the correct emergency procedures.

“They were using the wrong checklists,” said one person with knowledge of the tests.

In developing the MAX, Boeing sought to avoid the need for simulator training because it’s expensive for airlines. For U.S. airlines to run all their pilots through the limited number of available flight simulators will take thousands of hours — hours when the companies earn no revenue from ticket-buying passengers.

Dennis Tajer, a captain with American Airlines and spokesman for that airline’s union, the Allied Pilots Association, said that when American runs its pilots through their regular training updates, it consists of a two-hour pre-brief in a classroom followed by four hours in the simulator.

He said airlines have been given no information yet as to whether the MAX training would require a full four-hour simulator session or may be more limited.

American has about 4,200 pilots who fly the 737 and would need the MAX simulator training. United has about 4,400 and Southwest has more than 9,000.

As it pitched the MAX to airlines in 2011, Boeing promised the MAX would handle so much like the previous 737 NG model, and its cockpit would be so similar, that minimal training consisting of a short course on an iPad would be all that was needed for a pilot to transition from the earlier 737 to the MAX.

The expected savings from that were so important to airlines that in December 2011, when MAX launch customer Southwest Airlines placed the first order for 150 of the jets, Boeing included in the contract a clause guaranteeing a $1 million per airplane refund if simulator training were required.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which will set the regulatory requirement regarding what pilot training is required in the U.S., is likely to follow Boeing’s recommendation.

Later this month, a key part of the process for returning the MAX to commercial service will be the convening of the Joint Operations Evaluation Board (JOEB), a body of about 14 U.S. and foreign air carrier flight crews with diverse training that will evaluate the new systems on the MAX in full-motion simulator tests and come up with recommendations on what pilot training is required.

The FAA will use the data from the JOEB tests to develop official recommendations for pilot training.