Pilots Say They Were Blocked From Testing 737 MAX Updates In Simulator

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Pilots Say They Were Blocked From Testing 737 MAX Updates In Simulator
Pilots say they don't know who made the determination, but that American Airlines told them union safety experts would not have simulator access.

Safety experts for American Airlines' pilots union have been denied access to a 737 MAX simulator, according to the union. 

The experts, themselves pilots, are attempting to assess if Boeing's update to the 737 MAX is sufficient. In the wake of a series of surprise disclosures about the MAX from Boeing, the pilots union has vowed to be an additional check on the company's fixes to the grounded jet.

But the Allied Pilots Association (APA)'s attempt to get their own experts to test Boeing's new software has apparently been blocked, at least for now. American Airlines tells Newsy pilots will have broader access to the simulator once the FAA has certified Boeing's updated systems. But pilots want — and expected — to run tests in the simulator before that time.

"Frankly, our view is that, after the certification is completed, it would be almost a ceremonial participation," Jason Goldberg, a spokesperson for APA, said. "You know, I hate to use words like 'a dog and pony show,' but simply, our view is we're concerned that that would just give the impression of our approval without us having been involved in the collaborative process of actually getting the aircraft to that point."

The union says experts wanted time in a simulator in Miami that physically moves, to simulate the actual plane's movements — a much more realistic experience than ones to which they've previously had access. Those safety experts, as well as a number of other pilots from airlines around the world, have only had a chance to use to a stationary simulator in Seattle, where they tested Boeing's fix. 

Some high-ranking American pilots, who oversee other pilots and are part of airline management, have apparently used the full-motion simulator in Miami, but not the ones with critical insight on the safety components of Boeing's MCAS function.

"Although we certainly respect our management colleagues," Goldberg said, "We feel that the association safety experts need to be a part of this in order to make it a collaborative effort."

The MCAS is an automation system suspected of causing two deadly 737 MAX crashes. On Lion Air flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines flight 302, the system read faulty information from sensors on the exterior of the plane. Mistakenly thinking the planes were pointed too high into the sky, the MCAS forced the noses of those planes down. The pilots of the flights were unable to recover, and 346 people died, collectively. 

Boeing has since updated the software to limit the degree to which it can push the nose down, and to make it more sensitive to pilot intervention. The updated system will also read so-called "angle of attack" information from more than one sensor. 

But pilots' trust in Boeing has been tested. The company never told MAX pilots about the MCAS' existence when it sold the MAX to airlines. It only disclosed the system after Lion Air 610 crashed. In the wake of Ethiopian Airlines flight 302 crashing, pilots became concerned Boeing's procedure to recover from an MCAS malfunction wasn't enough. 

American Airlines and Boeing have both publicly touted the importance of involving pilots in the process to recertify the MAX.  American's CEO, Doug Parker, told NBC News, "If an American Airlines pilot is willing to fly that airplane, you can be one hundred percent certain that airplane is safe."

But Goldberg says American was the one to pass along the message that safety experts wouldn't have access to the simulator, though it's not clear who actually made the determination those experts would not yet be able to use the simulator. 

"We have really no idea why this stance would be taken towards our participation," Goldberg said. "We can't understand why." 

American Airlines would not directly answer Newsy's questions Friday. It offered several responses, though, reiterating its partnership with the union in ensuring the MAX's safety.

"We have been working collaboratively with the APA and their safety and training teams throughout this process, including joint meetings with Boeing and IATA. They have, and continue to be, great partners throughout this process," the airline told Newsy in a statement.

But that doesn't jell for Goldberg, especially if the simulator shut-out continues. 

"It certainly can't be said that we were a true collaborative part of the process," Goldberg said. "We just hope that everyone kind of takes a deep breath and steps back and realizes that this doesn't make sense."

Boeing did not immediately respond to Newsy's request for comment Friday.