The head of the Federal Aviation Administration took a direct role in evaluating the Boeing 737 Max on Wednesday, flying the aircraft on a two-hour test flight hour of Seattle. Speaking to reporters after landing, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson expressed confidence in the revamped plane's airworthiness.
"I liked what I saw," he said. "I felt that the training prepared me to be very comfortable with the plane."
The 737 Max has been grounded since March 2019 after two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people. A former commercial pilot, Dickson said his flight today is separate from the FAA's official recertification process, which is still underway.
Dickson said he used the time to experience relevant emergencies that might occur related to the MCAS flight control system blamed for both crashes. Over the last 18 months, Boeing has made changes to MCAS and has expanded pilots' training to include simulator time before they can fly the plane.
"I made a promise I would fly the 737 Max and that I wouldn't sign off on its return until I was comfortable putting my family on it," he said. "It was important to experience the training and the handling of the aircraft."
Though he wouldn't commit to an end date for the recertification process -- the FAA has released a list of changes it says Boeing must make to the Max before it can return to service -- Dickson said the process is in the home stretch. Boeing will also need approval from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency and Transport Canada, which are conducting their own tests.
The FAA has come under fire since the crashes for not being stringent enough in the Max's original certification process in 2017. Though an independent panel set up by the Department of Transportation (the FAA is a division of the DOT) in January found no significant problems with how the Max was cleared to fly, last month a House Transportation Committee inquiry identified a "fundamentally flawed" regulatory system.
During the press conference, Dickson sought to assuage fears that the FAA is not being rigorous this time around.
"The FAA continues to take a thorough and deliberate approach in our review of Boeing's proposed changes to the 737 Max, he said. "The FAA will not approve the plane to return to passenger service until I'm satisfied that we've adequately addressed all of the known safety issues."