United States regulators have found that more training will be needed to fly Boeing's troubled 737 Max plane, but say the system under scrutiny was "operationally suitable".
Fallout from safety concerns about the aircraft is hitting airlines hard.
A US Federal Aviation Administration panel into Boeing yesterday released a draft report into a fix aimed at overcoming problems linked to crashes of two of the new generation planes within six months, killing 346 people.
Boeing has announced a planned software update on the Max to prevent erroneous data from triggering an anti-stall system known as MCAS. In the crash of an Ethiopian Airways plane, there's growing speculation that the angle of attack sensor, which feeds data into the plane's systems, could have been ripped off, possibly by a bird strike.
The draft report from the Flight Standardisation Board appointed by the FAA, which includes pilots, engineers and other experts, said additional training was needed for MCAS (for maneuvering characteristics augmentation system), but was not required to be done in a simulator, which is expensive and could cause further delays in returning the plane to service.
The board said ground training "must address system description, functionality, associated failure conditions, and flight crew alerting". However, the MCAS system was found to be "operationally suitable".
The finding was welcomed by investors, who pushed the company's share price up 1.7 per cent on Wall Street, but fallout from the Max disaster has led to calls for a board shake-up.
Shareholder advisory firm Institutional Shareholder Services has recommended a proposal that would require Boeing to have an independent chairman of the board. Currently, the under-fire chief executive Dennis Muilenburg is also in that position.
More than 300 Boeing 737 Max planes have been grounded around the world since March, including aircraft serving New Zealand.
Fiji Airways has two of the planes and has announced it will lease a Boeing 737-800 aircraft from Miami Air to cover some of its schedules due to the grounding. The chartered aircraft will operate some flights between Nadi and Auckland, Apia, Christchurch and Brisbane.
The aircraft has 166 economy class seats in a single cabin configuration.
The "wet leased" plane will operate with its own cabin crew and pilots, with a Fiji Airways purser or senior flight attendant onboard to oversee the cabin experience.
Fiji Airways made the decision to lease an aircraft for the peak period (school holidays and leading into winter) to limit any disruptions to travel plans.
"While the airline recognises that the onboard experience and facilities will differ from its usual offering, it will do everything possible to ensure that guests continue to enjoy a comfortable experience."
Virgin Australia has 40 Max planes on order and while none are due until later this year, it has been working closely with Boeing since the world-wide grounding last month.
It has said it "will not introduce any new aircraft to the fleet unless we are completely satisfied with its safety", which has been the stance of other airlines.
However, any forced delays in getting new aircraft into fleets will be disruptive. Airlines plan fleet renewal years ahead, and ordering from another supplier — Airbus — is not viable because that company's order books are full.
United States airlines have the most Max planes and American Airlines this week warned that it would extend cancellations of flights using the planes through the summer peak to August 19.
This amounts to 115 flights a day, or 1.5 per cent of flying over the northern summer.
"Based upon our ongoing work with the FAA and Boeing, we are highly confident that the Max will be recertified prior to this time.
But by extending our cancellations through the summer, we can plan more reliably for the peak travel season and provide confidence to our customers and team members when it comes to their travel plans," the airline said.
Southwest Airlines has grounded its 34 Max planes until August 5, while so far United Airlines has grounded planes until early July.
Boeing has cut production of the Max by 20 per cent, which is forecast to shave 0.2 per cent off second-quarter GDP in the United States, Wells Fargo forecasts.
This month Boeing's Muilenburg reiterated the company's commitment to the plane.
"We remain confident in the fundamental safety of the 737 MAX. All who fly on it — the passengers, flight attendants and pilots, including our own families and friends — deserve our best. When the MAX returns to the skies with the software changes to the MCAS function, it will be among the safest airplanes ever to fly."
There's no word though on whether Boeing will take the advice of President Donald Trump, who this week tweeted that the company should rebrand the plane.
"What do I know about branding, maybe nothing (but I did become President)," Trump tweeted. "But if I were Boeing, I would FIX the Boeing 737 MAX, add some additional great features, & REBRAND the plane with a new name. No product has suffered like this one. But again, what the hell do I know?"
Not that the Trump brand had a magical impact during his foray into aviation 30 years ago.
Business Insider reports that in 1988, Trump bought 17 Boeing 727s and landing rights at airports in New York, Boston and Washington, DC, added some additional features such as gold coloured bathroom fixtures and rebranded the operation as the
"Trump Shuttle". It collapsed in a heap four years later, heavily in debt.