Boeing Co.’s 737 Max aircraft, grounded since March after two fatal crashes in five months, should be back in the air by December, a top US regulator said.
It’s not possible to give an exact date as work progresses on safety fixes to the aircraft, Ali Bahrami, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) associate administrator for aviation safety, said in an interview Wednesday at a conference in Cologne, Germany.
While the FAA is “under a lot of pressure,” he said the Max will be returned to service “when we believe it will be safe,” following reviews of the design, flight testing and other checks. Bahrami was reluctant to provide a timeline, but asked whether the plane would resume service this year or next, he said remarks by Boeing Chief Executive Officer Dennis Muilenburg projecting a return by the end of 2019 sounded correct.
Knowing when the latest version of the 737 will fly again would help airlines contend with the disruption caused by the grounding of the narrow-body, Boeing’s most popular model. The FAA has said that there’s no time frame to sign off on Boeing’s proposed fix for the jet.
Muilenburg said last week on CNBC that he expected that the Max would be back in the air by year-end.
American Airlines Group, Inc. has kept the plane off its schedule through Sept. 3, while Southwest Airlines Co. and United Continental Holdings, Inc. are looking at resuming Max flights in early August.
Boeing is finalizing a software fix for a flight-control system malfunction linked to the accidents involving Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines, as well as proposed new pilot training. A combined 346 people were killed in the crashes five months apart.
The FAA isn’t the only regulator that holds sway over returning the Max to the skies. The European Aviation Safety Agency also is examining Boeing’s changes, a process that won’t conclude until the end of July at the earliest, Director Patrick Ky said in a separate interview. The agency is considering whether to require additional simulator training for flying the Max, as well as potential design changes, he said.
Boeing has cut its production rate for the model by 10 planes a month to 42. The company had earlier aimed to increase output to 57 monthly in the second half of the year.
The Chicago-based planemaker faces an estimated $1.4-billion bill for canceled flights and lost operating profit at airlines if the Max is still grounded by the end of September, said Bloomberg Intelligence analyst George Ferguson.
In a related development, American Airlines Group, Inc. managers will fly on Boeing Co. 737 Max aircraft before paying passengers are asked to climb aboard – a move meant to build confidence in the plane’s safety.
Executives and other staff will join American pilots on flights as soon as regulators certify that the Max is cleared for travel, and before Sept. 4, which is the earliest date commercial trips will resume, American Chief Executive Officer Doug Parker said at the carrier’s annual shareholder meeting Wednesday. The Max has been grounded worldwide since March 13, after two fatal crashes within five months.
Airlines have been crafting strategies to convince travelers the Max is safe now that Boeing has improved software for a flight-control system that malfunctioned in the accidents and bolstered the fixes with new pilot training. US safety regulators have said they’ve set no time frame for signing off on Boeing’s proposed repairs for the jet.
“We’d like to get it flying again so when customers get on it, they realize it’s been flying potentially for weeks,” said Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for American. Airline executives, managers, flight attendants and other employees could be among those aboard, he said.
American earlier this month tacked two weeks onto the time the Max will remain off of its schedule, extending its absence through Sept. 3. The change was made to accommodate crew scheduling needs, and doesn’t mean the airline doubts the Max will be approved to resume flights earlier, Parker said.
“We wouldn’t be selling seats today if we didn’t think it was a highly likely possibility that the aircraft will be flying by Sept. 3,” the CEO said.
The first post-approval flights, which will include those needed to shift some grounded planes from storage in Roswell, New Mexico, to American’s maintenance base in Tulsa, Oklahoma, can also be used as a refresher for pilots whose training has been updated.
“Once you see pilots from American, Southwest and United saying they’re taking the plane up because it’s safe to fly, it will be,” Parker said. “They are exceptionally well trained, they are safety professionals.”
United Continental Holdings, Inc. has removed the Max from its flight schedule through Aug. 3, while Southwest, the biggest Max operator, has set Aug. 5 for its return. (Bloomberg)