Airlines Gaining Confidence In 737 MAX Service Return Timelines

Boeing MAX aircraft
Credit: Boeing

As regulators and Boeing work to finalize 737 MAX pilot training and return-to-service requirements, several operators of the grounded model are growing more confident that they will have some of their newest Boeing narrowbodies carrying revenue passengers by early 2021 at the latest.

“We don’t have a definitive date, but the way it’s playing out now is that we expect there to be a airworthiness directive (AD) issued this year,” Air Canada CEO Calin Rovinescu told analysts on the carrier’s third-quarter earnings call Nov. 9. “But our expectation at this moment in time is that the airplane would only be flying [in Canadian airspace] early next year.”

Transport Canada (TC) is among several regulators working closely with both the U.S. FAA and Boeing on evaluating the MAX flight-control software updates and training changes ordered after two fatal accidents led to the fleet’s grounding in March 2019. The FAA is reviewing input on proposed minimum training and a draft AD that outlines return-to-service requirements. Finalizing both are among the last major steps before the FAA issues its approvals that would clear MAX operations in U.S. airspace.

Similar approvals from several other regulators, including TC and EASA, are expected to follow soon after the FAA’s decision. 

Some agencies, including the Civil Aviation Administration of China and India’s Directorate General of Civil Aviation, have signaled that their evaluations of Boeing’s proposed changes will take longer. The FAA’s public stance is that it has no time line for returning the model to service. 

Clearance to operate MAXs in a country’s airspace—a de facto un-grounding order—is the start of the return-to-service process for operators of the 385-aircraft MAX fleet. Boeing has another 470 built but undelivered MAXs in storage—aircraft that cannot be handed over to customers until the prospective operator’s regulator removes its grounding order.

Once a regulator signs off, airlines under its oversight must accomplish the steps in their regulators’ AD, which will include upgrading the MAX’s flight control computer software and modifying some wiring. Pilots must be trained—a key step that cannot start until the training curriculum is finalized. Key documentation, including flight and maintenance manuals, must also be updated and accepted by regulators. Most operators have estimated that they will need anywhere from four to eight weeks to re-start revenue service with MAXs once regulatory approval is given.

American Airlines has scheduled MAXs on some frequencies between its Miami and New York LaGuardia hubs starting Dec. 29. The airline’s time line assumes the FAA’s approval would come just before the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday on Nov. 26.

The airline’s return-to-service effort will include non-revenue flights for employees and likely some frequent flyers, as well as question-and-answer sessions at several of its hubs, executives told employees during a recent internal meeting. The carrier plans to put MAXs on display at airports and have representatives from key labor groups, including at least pilots and mechanics, field questions from attendees. American also is planning some virtual meetings with pilots speaking to high-value customers.

The Fort Worth-based airline has opened up MAX training sessions for its pilots starting in December and plans to train about 1,700 pilots by year-end. The rest—about 2,500 pilots—would be trained by March.


Sean Broderick

Senior Air Transport & Safety Editor Sean Broderick covers aviation safety, MRO, and the airline business from Aviation Week Network's Washington, D.C. office.