U.S. to allow small drones to fly over people and at night

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Small drones will be allowed to fly over people and at night in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Monday, a significant step toward their use for widespread commercial deliveries.

The FAA said its long-awaited rules for the drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles, will address security concerns by requiring remote identification technology in most cases to enable their identification from the ground.

Previously, small drone operations over people were limited to operations over people who were directly participating in the operation, located under a covered structure, or inside a stationary vehicle – unless operators had obtained a waiver from the FAA.

The rules will take effect 60 days after publication in the federal register in January. Drone manufacturers will have 18 months to begin producing drones with Remote ID, and operators will have an additional year to provide Remote ID.

There are other, more complicated rules that allow for operations at night and over people for larger drones in some cases.

“The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said. “They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”

Companies have been racing to create drone fleets to speed deliveries. The United States has over 1.7 million drone registrations and 203,000 FAA-certificated remote pilots.

For at-night operations, the FAA said drones must be equipped with anti-collision lights. The final rules allow operations over moving vehicles in some circumstances.

Remote ID is required for all drones weighing 0.55 lb or more, but is required for smaller drones under certain circumstances like flights over open-air assemblies.

The new rules eliminate requirements that drones be connected to the internet to transmit location data but do that they broadcast remote ID messages via radio frequency broadcast. Without the change, drone use could have been barred from use in areas without internet access.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International said Remote ID will function as “a digital license plate for drones … that will enable more complex operations” while operations at night and over people “are important steps towards enabling integration of drones into our national airspace.”

One change, since the rules were first proposed in 2019, requires that small drones not have any exposed rotating parts that would lacerate human skin.

United Parcel Service Inc. said in October 2019 that it won the government’s first full approval to operate a drone airline.

Last year, Alphabet’s Wing, a sister unit of search engine Google, was the first company to get U.S. air carrier certification for a single-pilot drone operation.

In August, Amazon.com Inc’s drone service received federal approval allowing the retailer to begin testing commercial deliveries through its drone fleet.

Walmart Inc. said in September it would run a pilot project for delivery of grocery and household products through automated drones but acknowledged “it will be some time before we see millions of packages delivered via drone.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Howard Goller)

U.S. ends Boeing 737 MAX flight ban after crash probes

By David Shepardson and Eric M. Johnson

WASHINGTON/SEATTLE (Reuters) – After nearly two years of scrutiny, corporate upheaval and a standoff with global regulators, Boeing Co won approval on Wednesday from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration to fly its 737 MAX jet again after two fatal disasters.

The FAA detailed software upgrades and training changes Boeing must make in order for it to resume commercial flights after a 20-month grounding, the longest in commercial aviation history.

The 737 MAX crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia killed 346 people within five months in 2018 and 2019 and triggered a hailstorm of investigations, frayed U.S. leadership in global aviation and cost Boeing some $20 billion.

The U.S. plane maker’s best-selling jet will resume commercial service facing strong headwinds from a resurgent coronavirus pandemic, new European trade tariffs and mistrust of one of the most scrutinized brands in aviation.

Families of the Ethiopian crash victims said in a statement on Wednesday that they felt “sheer disappointment and renewed grief” following the FAA’s decision to return the aircraft to service.

“Our family was broken,” Naoise Ryan, whose 39-year-old husband died aboard Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, said on Tuesday.

The 737 MAX is a re-engined upgrade of a jet first introduced in the 1960s. Single-aisle jets like the MAX and rival Airbus A320neo are workhorses that dominate global fleets and provide a major source of industry profit.

Of the U.S. airlines with 737 MAX jets, American Airlines plans to relaunch the first commercial MAX flight since the grounding on Dec. 29, followed by United Airlines in the first quarter of 2021 and Southwest Airlines in the second quarter next year.

Leading regulators in Europe, Brazil and China must issue their own approvals for their airlines after independent reviews, illustrating how the 737 MAX crashes upended a once U.S.-dominated airline safety system in which nations large and small for decades moved in lock-step with the FAA.

When it does fly, Boeing will be running a 24-hour war room to monitor all MAX flights for issues that could impact the jet’s return, from stuck landing gear to health emergencies, three people familiar with the matter said.

Shares jumped in premarket trading and were on track for their highest level since June.

LONG RUNWAY AHEAD

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson signed an order lifting the flight ban early on Wednesday and the agency released an airworthiness directive detailing the required changes.

“We’ve done everything humanly possible to make sure” these types of crashes do not happen again, Dickson told Reuters, saying he felt “100% confident” in the plane’s safety.

The FAA is requiring new pilot training and software upgrades to deal with a stall-prevention system called MCAS, which in both crashes repeatedly and powerfully shoved down the jet’s nose as pilots struggled to regain control.

The FAA, which has faced accusations of being too close to Boeing in the past, said it would no longer allow Boeing to sign off on the airworthiness of some 450 737 MAXs built and parked during the flight ban. It plans in-person inspections that could take a year or more to complete, prolonging the jets’ delivery.

Boeing is scrambling to keep up maintenance and find new buyers for many of its mothballed 737 MAXs after receiving cancellations from their original buyers. Demand is further sapped by the coronavirus crisis.

Even with all the hurdles, resuming deliveries of the 737 MAX will open up a crucial pipeline of cash for Boeing and hundreds of parts suppliers whose finances were strained by production cuts linked to the jet’s safety ban.

Numerous reports have faulted Boeing and the FAA on the plane’s development. A U.S. House of Representatives report in September said Boeing failed in its design and development of the MAX, and the FAA failed in its oversight and certification.

It also criticized Boeing for withholding crucial information from the FAA, its customers, and pilots including “concealing the very existence of MCAS from 737 MAX pilots.”

The chief executive of Boeing urged staff to speak up whenever they see behavior going against values of safety, quality and integrity. “We have implemented a series of meaningful changes to strengthen the safety practices and culture of our company,” Dave Calhoun told employees in a letter.

The House on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill to reform how the FAA certifies airplanes, while a Senate panel is to consider a similar bill on Wednesday.

Boeing faces lawsuits from crash victim families.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, Tracy Rucinski in Chicago, David Shepardson in Washington, Allison Lampert in Montreal and Jamie Freed in Sydney; Editing by Matthew Lewis and Nick Zieminski)

House to vote on FAA reform bill after Boeing 737 MAX crashes

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives is set to vote on Tuesday on bipartisan legislation to reform the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) aircraft certification process after two fatal Boeing 737 MAX crashes killed 346 people.

The 737 MAX has been grounded since March 2019 but the FAA is set on Wednesday to approve the plane’s return to service after a lengthy review, new software safeguards and training upgrades.

The House bill requires an expert panel to evaluate Boeing’s safety culture and recommend improvements, and mandates that aircraft manufacturers adopt safety management systems and complete system safety assessments for significant design changes. It also requires that risk calculations be based on realistic assumptions of pilot response time, and that risk assessments are shared with regulators.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved the measure unanimously on Sept. 30.

Representative Peter DeFazio, the panel’s chairman, told Reuters in a statement that the measure is “a strong bill that has support from both sides of the aisle and addresses something we all agree on — keeping people safe. There’s no reason to wait until the next Congress to get this done.”

DeFazio, a Democrat, said the FAA failed to properly ensure the safety of the 737 MAX, and called aircraft certification “a broken system that broke the public’s trust.”

Boeing and the FAA declined to comment on the legislation.

A report released by DeFazio found the 737 MAX crashes were the “horrific culmination” of failures by Boeing and the FAA and called for urgent reforms.

The House bill would extend airline whistleblower protections to U.S. manufacturing employees, require FAA approval of new workers who are performing delegated certification tasks, and impose civil penalties on those who interfere with the performance of FAA-authorized duties.

The panel’s top Republican, Representative Sam Graves, said the bill “will help ensure the United States remains the gold standard in aviation safety and maintain our competitiveness in the aerospace sector because we were able to leave partisan politics at the door (and) adhere to the experts’ conclusions that our system should be improved but not dismantled.”

It is unclear if the U.S. Senate will take up the measure before the current Congress expires this year.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

Boeing 737 MAX crash victims urge more steps by FAA before flight approval

By Tracy Rucinski and Eric M. Johnson

CHICAGO/SEATTLE (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s proposed changes to the Boeing Co. 737 MAX fail to fix structural flaws on the jet that suffered two fatal crashes, victims’ families said on Thursday, urging additional steps including a full aerodynamic review.

The FAA said last month it is proposing requiring four key 737 MAX design and operating changes that would pave the path for the jet to fly again, possibly later this year, following an 18-month global grounding.

But in a filing as part of a 45-day public comment period on the agency’s proposed airworthiness directive, crash victim families said the proposals leave critical questions on the airplane’s safety unanswered.

“They fail to address the root cause of the problem: the 737 MAX’s inherent aerodynamic instability,” said the families, who were advised by aerospace experts.

Boeing’s proposed modification of a software system called MCAS linked to both crashes does not address the underlying aerodynamic problem, introduces greater complexity, and may create additional failure modes, they said in the filing, which was signed by more than 2,000 family members.

The families called for a complete aerodynamic evaluation of the 737 MAX to understand the airplane’s pitch-up tendency and a simplified crew alert system so that pilots are not overwhelmed by multiple warning systems.

In both crashes, the MCAS flight control system, triggered by erroneous data from a single angle-of-attack airflow sensor, repeatedly and forcefully pushed down the jet’s nose as pilots struggled to regain control.

If the MAX is certified to fly again with a less powerful MCAS system, the families called for a third active angle-of-attack sensor and accompanying software to detect sensor failures.

They also said the FAA should disclose to the public the data it used to make its decisions and commission a new independent review board to assess the findings and the 737 MAX’s safety before returning it to service.

An 18-month investigation by U.S. lawmakers found the crashes were the “horrific culmination” of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.

Aside from the FAA’s final airworthiness directive, Boeing is facing reviews by foreign regulators, who are also weighing new pilot training procedures.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)

U.S. proposes to waive minimum flight requirements for airlines until March 2021

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said Friday it is proposing extending temporarily waiving minimum flight requirements at some U.S. airports through late March 2021.

Airlines can lose their slots at congested airports if they do not use them at least 80% of the time. The FAA said it proposing extending waving requirements at New York’s JFK and LaGuardia airports and Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport that were set to expire in October.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Senate panel to take up FAA aircraft certification reform bill

By David Shepardson

(Reuters) – The U.S. Senate Commerce Committee on Sept. 16 will hold a hearing to consider a bill to strengthen U.S. oversight of aircraft certification following two fatal Boeing Co. 737 MAX crashes.

The measure seeks to eliminate the ability of aircraft makers like Boeing to unduly influence the certification process. It marks the most significant step toward reforms following the 2018 and 2019 crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people and sparked demands to change how the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approves new airplanes.

Boeing and the FAA did not immediately comment.

U.S. Senate Commerce Committee chair Roger Wicker, a Republican, and ranking member Maria Cantwell, a Democrat, introduced the proposal in June that would grant the FAA new power over the long-standing practice of delegating some certification tasks to aircraft manufacturer employees. It would give the agency authority to hire or remove Boeing employees conducting FAA certification tasks and allow the FAA to appoint safety advisers.

Boeing is still working to win regulatory approvals to resume commercial service of its 737 MAX since the plane was grounded worldwide in March 2019, plunging the Chicago-based company into a crisis since compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Boeing also faces lawsuits and an ongoing criminal probe.

The Senate legislation would grant new whistleblower protections to workers at airplane and parts manufacturers. It would also require the FAA to create a new safety reporting system for employees to detail concerns anonymously.

While victims’ family members applauded proposed reforms, they are also demanding that critical aircraft systems – like the MCAS flight control system linked to both crashes – be approved by the FAA, not just Boeing, and that manufacturers be required to re-certify new aircraft derived from earlier models.

Representative Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, told Reuters in July he planned to introduce FAA certification reform legislation in September, saying the Senate bill was a good start but did not go far enough.

(Reporting by David Shepardson, Editing by Franklin Paul and Chizu Nomiyama)

FAA issues emergency directive on 2,000 Boeing 737 NG, Classic planes

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Friday issued an emergency airworthiness directive for 2,000 U.S.-registered Boeing 737 NG and Classic aircraft that have been in storage, warning they could have corrosion that could lead to a dual-engine failure.

The directive covers planes not operated for seven or more consecutive days. The FAA issued the directive after inspectors found compromised air check valves when bringing aircraft out of storage.

If corrosion is found, the valve must be replaced prior to the aircraft’s return to service, the FAA said.

Boeing Co. said on Friday it had advised operators to inspect the planes and added “with airplanes being stored or used infrequently due to lower demand during the COVID-19 pandemic, the valve can be more susceptible to corrosion.”

U.S. airlines stored thousands of airplanes after the coronavirus pandemic sharply reduced travel demand and some have been bringing some aircraft back into service as demand rises.

The directive covering the 737 NG (600 to 900 series) and 737 Classic (737-300 to 737-500 series) was prompted by four recent reports of single-engine shutdowns caused by engine bleed air 5th stage check valves stuck in the open position.

The FAA said the directive is to address corrosion of the engine bleed air 5th stage check valves for both engines. The agency said that could result in compressor stalls and dual-engine power loss without the ability to restart.

Boeing said it is providing inspection and replacement information to fleet owners if they find an issue.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines, two large U.S. operators of the 737, said they had not experienced the issues described in the directive. United Airlines said it is complying with the directive and does not anticipate an impact on operations.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington; Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Matthew Lewis)

Hundreds of U.S. flights canceled after air traffic coronavirus cases

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. airlines have canceled hundreds of flights at three major U.S. airports this week after a series of coronavirus cases involving air traffic control personnel.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) temporarily closed the air traffic control tower at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York early Friday before reopening it around 11:30 a.m. ET (1530 GMT). The FAA also shuttered part of the Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control Center for cleaning after workers tested positive for the coronavirus.

The FAA said a technician at JFK had tested positive and air traffic controllers had been operating earlier from an alternate location on airport property.

American Airlines Group Inc <AAL.O> said it canceled 20 of its 68 scheduled departures from JFK on Friday due to a reduced incoming arrival rate after traffic control was shifted to the other location.

In Indiana, after an air traffic control supervisor tested positive, the FAA vacated work areas at the Indianapolis Air Route Traffic Control and flights through the airspace handled by those sectors were rerouted.

Air traffic control towers remain closed at Chicago Midway and Las Vegas airports after other coronavirus cases were reported earlier this week.

Airlines have canceled more than 700 flights on Thursday and Friday at Las Vegas and more than 800 over the last two days at Midway, according to flightaware.com.

Southwest Airlines <LUV.N> has resumed operations in Chicago after canceling more than 200 flights on Thursday. The airline said it had also canceled another 150 flights at Chicago and more than 165 flights at Las Vegas airport on Friday.

On Thursday, the FAA placed a temporary flight restriction over Midway to allow only commercial flights and other authorized flights after a number of local private pilots began using the airport for touch-and-go landing practice.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Chris Reese and Richard Chang)

Utah hit with 5.7-magnitude quake, inbound flights from Salt Lake City diverted

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said on Wednesday it had evacuated the air control tower at Salt Lake City International Airport and halted flights after a magnitude 5.7 earthquake was reported nearby.

The FAA said it “has implemented a ground stop for (Salt Lake City) and is diverting inbound aircraft to other airports.” The FAA’s Salt Lake Air Route Traffic Control Center is handling all air traffic in the area.

Salt Lake City is the 23rd busiest U.S. airport and a hub for Delta Air Lines.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)