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Europe’s top aviation regulator judges Boeing Max safe to fly

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Europe’s top aviation regulator said he’s satisfied that changes to Boeing Co.’s 737 Max have made the plane safe enough to return to the region’s skies before 2020 is out, even as a further upgrade his agency demanded won’t be ready for up to two years.

After test flights conducted in September, EASA is performing final document reviews ahead of a draft airworthiness directive it expects to issue next month, said Patrick Ky, executive director of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency.

Patrick Ky [File: Bloomberg]

That will be followed by four weeks of public comment, while the development of a so-called synthetic sensor to add redundancy will take 20 to 24 months, he said. The software-based solution will be required on the larger Max 10 variant before its debut targeted for 2022, and retrofitted onto other versions.

“Our analysis is showing that this is safe, and the level of safety reached is high enough for us,” Ky said in an interview. “What we discussed with Boeing is the fact that with the third sensor, we could reach even higher safety levels.”

The comments mark the firmest endorsement yet from a major regulator of Boeing’s goal to return its beleaguered workhorse to service by year-end, following numerous delays and setbacks. The Max, the latest version of the venerable 737 narrow-body, was grounded in March 2019 in the wake of two accidents that took 346 lives, setting into motion a crisis that’s cost Boeing billions of dollars and then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg his job.

While the Federal Aviation Administration, Boeing’s main certification body, is further along in its review, it has held back from making predictions about the timing. FAA chief Steve Dickson flew the Max late last month and said he was “very comfortable,” but the process wasn’t complete.

Boeing jumped 5.5% to $173.21 at 9:35 a.m. in New York, the sharpest gain on the S&P 500 index. Through Thursday, the shares had lost half their value this year, recording the biggest decline on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

A spokeswoman for the Chicago-based company declined to comment.

EASA’s views also carry outsize weight in light of flaws in the original certification process that dented the U.S. regulator’s once-sterling reputation.

Ky said the synthetic sensor would simplify the job of pilots when one or both of the mechanical angle-of-attack sensors on the Max fails. The device, which monitors whether a plane is pointed up or down relative to the oncoming air, malfunctioned in both crashes — the first off the coast of Indonesia in October 2018 and the second one, five months later, in Ethiopia.

“We think that it is overall a good development which will increase the level of safety,” Ky said. “It’s not available now and it will be available at the same time as the Max 10 is expected to be certified.”

New Beginning

The Max episode strained the rapport between the FAA and global aviation authorities including EASA which acted faster to bench the jet and have made demands that go beyond U.S. requirements to clear its return. Ky said the relationship between the European agency, home regulator to Boeing rival Airbus SE, and its U.S. counterpart needs to be rebuilt in a way that enhances safety while not slowing down progress.

“For the FAA, the Max accident has been a tragedy,” he said. “In terms of the way in which they perceive their own roles, the way they were attacked by different stakeholders in the U.S., the way they have been criticized, it must have been extremely difficult.”

The FAA’s relationship with Boeing has also shifted, after the planemaker was accused of hiding changes that magnified the differences between the Max and earlier 737 models in order to reduce costs and minimize training requirements.

“At the end of the day,” Ky said, “we have a lot of respect for the technical expertise at the FAA, we have a lot of respect for our colleagues and I’d like to believe it is the same on their side. That is the real important foundation for the relationship to grow again, it has to be based on respect.”

Another question mark for the Max is China, where aircraft demand surged prior to this year’s coronavirus pandemic. China has participated in some of the Max reviews but hasn’t been involved in the flight testing that includes regulators from Canada and Brazil along with the FAA and EASA, Ky said. “I honestly don’t know where they are” with their evaluation, he said.

A spokesperson for the Civil Aviation Administration of China didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Ethiopia’s civil aviation authority will carry out its own safety checks on the Max fleet of Ethiopian Airlines Group, whose aircraft suffered the second fatal crash, Amdye Ayalew Fanta, the government’s chief investigator, said by phone on Friday.

The African nation is looking to complete a prolonged report into the deadly crash that killed all 157 people on board the plane by March, its second anniversary.

While Ky’s comments are positive for Boeing and suppliers like Safran SA and Spririt AeroSysems Holdings Inc., the airframer “still has a mammoth task on its hands,” said Jeremy Bragg, an analyst at Redburn.

In addition to returning the aircraft to service, Boeing must also unwind inventories of about 450 Max jets that have been built but are awaiting delivery to customers, he said. “This must be achieved against a backdrop of very weak underlying demand, due to Covid-19, which will almost inevitably result in very weak pricing on the Max for the next few years.”

As the Max saga winds down, EASA is working with other regulators to apply the lessons learned to future certifications. One area has to do with evaluating derivative models like the Max that bolt modern technology onto older platforms. The challenge is finding the right balance and making sure pilots have the knowledge they need to fly the planes safely, he said.

One coming derivative is Boeing’s 777X, the next version of its 25-year-old wide-body which will have folding wings. Like many Boeing planes, it has two angle-of-attack sensors (Airbus jets have three or more). When discussing the Max, Ky said that the important question when one of two AOA sensors fails was its impact on the safety of the plane.

While the 777X doesn’t feature the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System that played a role in the Max crashes, Ky said EASA will closely study the new 777’s flight control systems and analyze any potential points of failure as part of its review.

As to whether this would slow the European approval process for the wide-body: “It depends a lot on whether Boeing is able to give us the right solutions and the right analysis on the risk assessment,” he said. “There may be other problems; we are really looking into this new aircraft and we are making sure that ours and Boeing’s safety assessment is done properly and doesn’t leave any questions unanswered.”

Hydrogen, Drones

Here are some of Ky’s comments on other topics including drones, new software and technologies such as hydrogen propulsion:

  • EASA won’t ask for changes on previous generations of the Boeing 737 jet, such as the NG, unless they are relevant. So far, none of the changes that regulators have asked for on the Max apply
  • The European agency is building up expertise in future technologies, software and propulsion systems. Certification of drones is a challenge, as a lot of manufacturers come from non-aviation backgrounds, and have “a completely different process of development.”
  • Some aviation software is developed using safety standards dating from the 1980s. Non-aviation companies working on autonomous flight, for example, may have an approach “that actually builds more robust software than ones that we certify” using the existing process. EASA is investing to build regulators’ competence in evaluating technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning
  • EASA is starting to work with the European Space Agency to build know-how around hydrogen propulsion, which is used in spacecraft. “Technically, from a pure propulsion standpoint, it’s not that difficult. What is much more difficult is the storage of the fuel on board that aircraft”

(Updates with Boeing shares in seventh paragraph, China response in 17th, comment from Ethiopian authorities in 18th)
–With assistance from Simon Marks and Tony Robinson.

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White House defends Pence campaigning after aide’s COVID-19 test

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President Donald Trump’s chief of staff has defended a decision by Vice President Mike Pence to continue an aggressive campaign schedule even after Pence’s closest aide tested positive for COVID-19.

The decision to stay on the campaign trail, which was announced hours after the White House on Saturday said Pence’s Chief of Staff Marc Short tested positive for the virus, has been derided by public health experts.

At least four other people in Pence’s orbit have also tested positive, according to reports in United States media.

A spokesman for Pence, who has headed the White House coronavirus task force since late February, said he will continue to campaign with just nine days until the November 3 election because he is considered “essential personnel”. That exempts the vice president from quarantining, despite being a “close contact” to someone who has been infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, the spokesman said.

Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff, defended that assertion on Sunday, saying Pence is “not just campaigning, he’s working” during the last leg of the presidential contest.

Trump and Pence have multiple daily campaign events scheduled as part of a battleground-state blitz they hope will close the gap in polls with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Meadows said Pence will wear a mask while campaigning, except for when he speaks at rallies.

“He’s wearing a mask as it relates to this particular thing because the doctors have advised him to do that,” he said during the interview.

Meadows also appeared to confirm a New York Times report that he had sought to prevent details of the infection from going public. When asked about the report, he said: “Sharing personal information is not something that we should do, not something that we do actually do, unless it’s the vice president or the president, or someone that’s very close to them where there is people in harm’s way.”

Pence, who held in-person rallies in Florida on Saturday, most recently tested negative on Sunday morning, hours before he was set to host a campaign event in North Carolina. Trump had tested positive for the virus on October 2 but was later cleared to return to campaigning after being briefly hospitalised.

‘Grossly negligent’

The decision to continue campaigning has been widely criticised by public health experts.

Dr Ali Nouri, a molecular biologist and president of the Federation of American Scientists, noted that Pence’s “negative test does not mean he is virus-free”.

“Even gold standard PCR tests don’t detect the virus in early stages when levels are low,” he tweeted on Sunday.

Saskia Popescu, an infectious disease expert at George Mason University, in an interview with The Associated Press news agency, called the decision “grossly negligent”.

“It’s just an insult to everybody who has been working in public health and public health response,” she said. “I also find it really harmful and disrespectful to the people going to the rally” and the people on Pence’s own staff who will accompany him.

“He needs to be staying home 14 days,” she added. “Campaign events are not essential.”

Meanwhile, Dr Leana Wen, a professor at George Washington University School of Public Health and the former health commissioner of Baltimore, said Pence’s decision sets a bad example for a country grappling with a new surge in cases.

The US has reported more than 83,000 new infections two days in a row, breaking its daily record for new cases on Friday. More than 224,000 people have died in the country from COVID-19.

“How can we ask our patients to follow public health guidelines when [Pence] won’t?” she wrote.

Cavalier approach

The plan for Pence largely underscores the cavalier approach to the coronavirus the Trump campaign has taken throughout the election season, even after the president, his wife and son tested positive.

The president has continued to host rallies with little social distancing and with some congregants not wearing masks. He has used his own experience, and the fact that his teenage son, Barron, was asymptomatic, to portray the pandemic as overblown by Democrats and the media.

As recently as Saturday, the president suggested the US might already have a vaccine if it were not for “politics”, renewing unfounded allegations that actors inside government agencies have been working to slow the development of an inoculant to hurt his chances at re-election.

That, despite public health experts repeatedly stressing that even the most ambitious timelines would not produce a safe vaccine before election day.

In an interview on Sunday, the White House’s top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci said it would be clear whether a government-supported COVID-19 vaccine was safe and effective by early December, but more widespread vaccination would not be likely until later in 2021.

“We will know whether a vaccine is safe and effective by the end of November, the beginning of December,” Fauci told the BBC.

“When you talk about vaccinating a substantial proportion of the population, so that you can have a significant impact on the dynamics of the outbreak, that very likely will not be until the second or third quarter of the year.”

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Road to 270: This state could be a ‘game over’ win for Biden

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CNN’s John King breaks down the spending and traveling of President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden in the run-up to Election Day.

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‘Cancel Borat’: Some in Kazakhstan not amused by comedy sequel

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The release of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Borat sequel has yet again elicited mixed reactions in Kazakh society.

The mockumentary comedy film, directed by Jason Woliner and entitled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, was released on Friday on Amazon Prime.

The fictional titular character is a Kazakh journalist and television personality Borat Sagdiyev, played by Baron Cohen, and characterised by his exaggerated racist, antisemitic and misogynist views, which are portrayed in the film as being typical in Kazakhstan.

While the movie is a satire on American ignorance and prejudice, rather than an attempt to mock Kazakhs, not everyone in Kazakhstan has appreciated the joke.

Prior to the movie’s release, more than 100,000 people signed an online petition to cancel the film.

Small groups of protesters also gathered in front of the US consulate in the Kazakh city of Almaty on the day of the premiere.

The social media reaction was particularly heated. The hashtag #cancelborat appeared on Twitter and Instagram, with thousands of Kazakhs outraged by the alleged racism of the movie and accusing Baron Cohen of insulting the nation.

To make things worse, before the premiere the film’s marketing team set up fake Instagram and Twitter accounts impersonating the Kazakh government. Initially, most tweets focused on the weather and the activities of the country’s ministers.

“Little known fact: Kazakhs were first in the world to domesticate horses. Another great moment in the history of our great nation! #technology #worldculture,” said a tweet from September 30.

That same day, the spoof account tweeted to congratulate Donald Trump – the “great friend of the Kazakh people” – for winning the presidential debate before it even took place.

“Apologies. We are unable to currently follow debate because of poor Wi-Fi signal despite recent government purchase of broadband account. Please inform us of developments! #debates2020,” said a subsequent tweet.

“GREAT NEWS! We are using Wi-Fi of neighbouring a**holes Uzbekistan! Watching debate again!,” the account tweeted minutes later.

While the press office of the Kazakh prime minister felt obliged to deny being the author of the account, this time the authorities restrained from making official comments about the movie.

‘Borat the last thing to worry about’

The first Borat movie, titled Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, which was released in 2006, initially elicited criticism from government officials.

But in 2012, Foreign Minister Yerzhan Kazykhanov said he was “grateful to Borat for helping attract tourists to Kazakhstan”.

He also said following the film’s release, the number of visas issued by the country grew tenfold.

Kazakh society, however, remains divided.

“Borat has once again split the Kazakhstanis into two camps. Some people are deeply outraged and say that the film is a lie because it was shot in Romania, not Kazakhstan. Our country is only 30 years old and state symbols are still sacralised,” Tatiana Fominova, a Kazakh marketing specialist, told Al Jazeera.

“The other half understands that the film is primarily about the United States and Sacha Baron Cohen has picked Kazakhstan almost randomly,” she said.

Fominova noted that, because of Borat, foreigners often laugh at Kazakhstan as they believe the movie reflects reality.

She said she had come across this reaction herself during a trip to the US, which she said was unpleasant, but added she would not hold it against the filmmakers.

“The level of absurdity and corruption in our country is so high that Borat is the last thing to worry about,” Fominova said.

“Kazakhstan grabs world media attention only in connection to consecutive political and social scandals. Borat cannot spoil this image even more.”

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