The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to review hundreds of new Boeing 737 Max planes individually before they can be delivered to customers, an added wrinkle into the already-delayed certification of the jetliners, grounded since mid-March after two fatal crashes.
In a letter to a Boeing safety and compliance executive on Tuesday, the FAA said that the "large number of new 737 MAX airplanes currently in storage presents a number of challenges for airworthiness certification, production, and delivery which significantly exceed any that the Boeing system has previously experienced."
Boeing executives have repeatedly said they expect regulators to sign off on the planes this quarter. On Nov. 11, Boeing said deliveries could resume as early as this month, a forecast that investors applauded. But the FAA and its administrator, Steve Dickson, continue to say that the FAA has no set timeline to allow the planes to return to market, setting up a public tug of war between the manufacturer and the agency.
"The FAA has determined that the public interest and safety in air commerce require that the FAA retain authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates of airworthiness for all 737 Max airplanes," the FAA's letter to Boeing said. "The FAA will retain such authority until the agency is confident that, at a minimum, Boeing has fully functional quality control and verification processes in place; delivery processes are similarly functional and stable; and Boeing's 737 MAX compliance, design, and production processes meet all regulatory standards and conditions for delegation and ensure the safety of the public."
Boeing didn't say whether the change would alter its long-held projection that it would win regulator approval in the fourth quarter but a spokesman said: "We welcome and embrace this decision by the FAA. Safety is our number one priority."
The FAA didn't say how long the process would take but a spokesman said the agency has "enough inspectors in place to accommodate Boeing's delivery capacity."
Boeing shares were down 0.7% in morning trading.
The 737 Max is Boeing's bestselling plane and the manufacturer halted deliveries and slashed production of the jets after the worldwide grounding in March. The company has stored more than 300 of the new planes in Washington state and Texas.
Nearly 350 people were killed in two 737 Max crashes — one in Indonesia in October 2018 and another in Ethiopia in March — prompting several investigations, including a criminal probe. Lawmakers have criticized the FAA for its original approval of the planes and questioned whether the agency handed over too much of the certification work to Boeing.
"We are not delegating anything in this process," Dickson said at an industry luncheon in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
Boeing has developed a software fix for the planes after flight-control software that was erroneously activated repeatedly pushed the nose of the planes down before both crashes. The FAA needs to sign off on the changes, review a test flight and review how pilots would interact with various cockpit alerts before the planes can fly commercially again.
Airlines have lost hundreds of millions of dollars as the grounding forced them to cut growth plans and cancel thousands of flights. U.S. 737 Max customers American, United and Southwest have removed the planes from their schedules until early March.