The newly installed chief of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration tested Boeing Co.'s 737 Max simulator on Thursday as part of an attempt to get up to speed on the grounded jetliner and the controversy surrounding the agency's approval of it two years ago.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson flew a series of routine maneuvers at a Boeing facility in Seattle and said he expected to conduct additional test runs related to the aircraft's two fatal crashes later in the day. Other than saying the plane "flies like other Boeing aircraft," Dickson didn't pass judgment on it.
Dickson, a former commercial pilot, took the reins in August after the FAA was led for 19 months by an acting chief. He is now overseeing one of the biggest controversies the agency has faced in decades, as it assesses how it certified the plane for service and works to approve Boeing's still-incomplete attempts to redesign it and return it to service.
The 737 Max was grounded by regulators after fatal crashes of a Lion Air flight in Indonesia last October and an Ethiopian Airlines flight in March, which between them killed 346 people.
Dickson, who has flown various Boeing models and served as senior vice president for flight operations at Delta Air Lines Inc., said he also wants to fly an actual 737 Max aircraft before the grounding order is lifted.
The plane was pulled from service worldwide on March 13 and aviation regulators in other nations, including the European Aviation Safety Agency, have said they are conducting their own independent reviews. That has prompted concern by airline executives that there could be a split between the U.S. and other nations.
Dickson is scheduled to address officials from about 50 other national aviation agencies in a meeting Monday in Montreal. He said he's hopeful that other governments will follow the U.S. lead on the Max, but the agency is also prepared to move forward on its own if necessary.
"I think it's very important that we maintain predictable international alignment," he said. "It's not in anyone's interest for any regulator or any certification authority to get out on their own."
The FAA has done more to promote aviation safety than any entity around the world, he said. However, other agencies have increasing "levels of sophistication" and "that's a good thing."
Having other nations review the FAA's work on the 737 Max redesign is a normal aspect of certification work, Dickson said. "We welcome the scrutiny," he added.
Boeing has said it expects the plane to resume operations before the end of the year.
A software feature on the plane malfunctioned in the two crashes, pushing down the nose repeatedly until pilots were overwhelmed and lost control within minutes of takeoff. Boeing is limiting the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System's ability to lower the nose and adding redundancy to reduce the likelihood of failures.
Dickson also plans to test the original version of the MCAS software that was involved in the crashes as well as the revised version Boeing in additional simulator tests. He met with Boeing officials, received a briefing on MCAS and associated systems on the 737, and spoke to employees at FAA's certification office in the region, which oversees the manufacturer.
Earlier in his career, Dickson flew on older versions of the 737. He said the special Boeing simulator used for engineering work "flies like a 737," but has "bigger TVs, bigger displays" in the cockpit, he said.