The Federal Aviation Administration has approved Boeing’s 737 Max to fly again after the aircraft was grounded for 20 months over safety concerns.
That doesn’t mean, though, that domestic airline passengers will see the aircraft in service immediately.
Some of the aircraft have been sitting for months. Pilots will need to be trained on the changes made in the cockpit. The planes will need to be tested. And other carriers have yet to receive the planes they ordered.
The coronavirus pandemic has caused a precipitous decline in air travel, and airlines have responded by parking thousands of planes worldwide. Still, the ones that operate the 737 Max will be eager to get them back in the air because they’re much more efficient.
Aviation safety expert John Cox, who writes a column for USA TODAY, said the aircraft is 20% more fuel efficient than prior versions of the 737 and its rival, the Airbus A320. It is more capable in range and payload, he said.
“It makes very good sense to fly it as soon as you can to lower operating cost during reduced-demand times,” Cox said.
The FAA grounded the planes in March 2019 following two fatal crashes five months apart, the first on Indonesia’s Lion Air and the second on Ethiopian Airlines. A total of 346 people were killed.
The 737 Max operated in the United States for months before it was grounded without any safety issues.
Boeing has fixed the navigation software problem that was behind the crashes. Pilots on each of the domestic carriers that ordered the 737 Max — Southwest, United, American and Alaska — will receive simulator training before they get in the cockpit.
American will be the first to return the aircraft to service, starting with one daily round-trip between Miami and New York LaGuardia on Dec. 29. American will add more flights in January and eventually have as many as 36 daily departures from its Miami hub.
American says passengers will be able to easily identify whether they’re flying on a 737 Max and will be re-accommodated if they prefer.
“If a customer doesn’t want to fly on the 737 Max, they won’t have to,” wrote David Seymour, American’s chief operating officer, in a letter to employees Wednesday signed by company executives.
United said Wednesday that its fleet would return to service during the first quarter of 2021, but set no date. Frank Benenati, a United spokesman, said each aircraft would require more than 1,000 hours of work, including software change, pilot training and multiple test flights.
United “will share a more specific schedule with our customers and employees soon,” Benenati said.
Southwest chairman and CEO Gary Kelly said Wednesday that “there is much work to be done before our Max aircraft will resume service.” He said the planes would resume operation no sooner than the second quarter of 2021.
Kelly noted that Southwest pilots flew nearly 40,000 flights on the MAX aircraft — or 89,000 flight hours — before the fleet was grounded. Still, Kelly said, every active pilot will receive training on a flight simulator and additional computer training on 737 Max procedures before passengers board any of the 34 aircraft.
“I am going to be flying on the Max before we return the aircraft to service,” Kelly added, “and the same is true for many other Southwest leaders.”
Alaska Airlines is set to receive its first Max planes at the beginning of the year and put them in service in March. Alaska said the planes will fly 19,000 hours in testing before they join the fleet. FAA representatives will be present on those test flights.
Though airlines have indicated a willingness to let passengers who are reluctant to fly the 737 Max switch to other options, even consumer advocates say the plane should be perfectly safe.
“It has been scrutinized more than any other aircraft in the air today,” said Charles Leocha, president and co-founder of Travelers United, a passenger advocacy group. “I don’t think there will be a lot of fear once pilots say the plane is fine and others start flying.”
Leocha said he’s confident that the FAA and Boeing have left “nothing to chance.”
“I really think that the 737 Max is ready to fly,” he said.
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