Airlines

Boeing 737 Max Passenger Flights Resume in U.S. After Nearly Two-Year Ban

Marco Bello | Reuters
  • American is the first airline to return the jets to commercial service in the U.S. since they were grounded in March 2019 after two crashes.
  • United and Southwest plan to fly the planes again in the first half of 2021. 
  • The jets are returning to a travel market devastated by the coronavirus.

MIAMI — The first U.S. commercial flight of Boeing's 737 Max since two deadly crashes prompted a worldwide grounding of the planes in March 2019 took off on Tuesday.

American Airlines Flight 718 took off from Miami International Airport at about 10:40 a.m. for New York's LaGuardia Airport, where it landed at 1:08 p.m., slightly ahead of schedule.

"We're flying on a Boeing 737 Max," Capt. Sean Roskey announced over the plane's PA system before the plane pushed back from the gate in Miami, to some applause from passengers, which included American Airlines' president, some commuting crew and other employees. "I have the utmost confidence in this aircraft. As a matter of fact, my wife is on board." The mother of Moraima Maldonado, the first officer, was also on board.

The 172-seat plane had 87 passengers on board, an American Airlines spokeswoman said. The Max flight back to Miami later Tuesday was nearly full, she said. The New York-bound flight was uneventful, though Wi-Fi service was unavailable for about the first half-hour.

The Fort Worth, Texas-based carrier is operating a once-daily roundtrip flight between the two airports and then plans to increase service to other cities in the coming weeks, with up to 91 Max flights a day between mid-February and early March.

United Airlines plans to start Max flights on Feb. 11 from its Denver and Houston hubs. Southwest Airlines said it expects Max flights to resume in March.

Brazilian carrier Gol, which operates an all-Boeing 737 fleet, earlier this month was the first airline to relaunch the jets. The planes, more fuel-efficient than previous models, are central to the plans of airlines around the world, with over 3,000 of them on order.

The milestone flights began just over a month since the Federal Aviation Administration cleared the Max to fly again, ending the largest grounding in aviation history, signing off on several safety-related changes Boeing made to the aircraft, its bestselling plane.

Pilots in both crashes — Lion Air flight 610 in Indonesia in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in Ethiopia in March 2019 — battled an automated flight-control system that was erroneously activated. All 346 people on the two flights were killed. Changes included making the flight-control system less aggressive, providing more redundancy and issuing additional pilot training that includes a session in a flight simulator

"I think what has happened with the Max, has heightened the intensity for which we all have to be mindful of safety and security," American's president, Robert Isom, told reporters ahead of the flight. "From a safety perspective I can tell you at American we don't take delivery of a plane without putting it through its paces."

About 1,400 of American Airlines' 2,700 Boeing 737 pilots have been trained on the Max, said Alan Johnson, American's senior manager of fleet training and standards. American Airlines is in the process of calling back another 1,000 furloughed 737 pilots under conditions of billions in additional federal aid for the struggling industry. They will all be trained on the Max, Johnson said.

Damning investigations in the wake of the crashes found problems with the plane's development, design and certification by U.S. regulators, tarnishing the reputation of Boeing and the FAA, long the gold standard in aviation safety. The crashes also prompted new legislation tightening the FAA's oversight of aircraft certification.

Family members of several victims have urged regulators in the U.S. and abroad not to lift their flight bans on the jets, calling the planes unsafe. "Public trust is a privilege earned, not an entitlement," said Zipporah Kuria, whose father was killed on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019.

American and other carriers that operate the Max have said that if customers booked on the aircraft don't feel comfortable flying on the plane, they can switch flights without paying a fee if options are available.

The airline hasn't noticed passengers asking to change from flights operated by 737 Max aircraft to other planes, Isom said.

In another move meant to boost transparency, American changed gate agents' announcements on Dec. 21 to include aircraft type across the network.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson last month told CNBC he is "100% confident" in the jets and that a repeat of the scenarios that led to the two crashes is "impossible." Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines pilot flew the plane himself in September.

Airline executives have flown on the planes recently to try to boost confidence from the public.

Analysts expect a high level of scrutiny of the jets as they make their way back into commercial fleets. An Air Canada 737 Max that was being ferried without passengers on board from a storage facility in Marana, Arizona, to Montreal diverted to Tucson, Arizona, last week after pilots received an engine warning. Boeing has set up a dedicated team to monitor 737 Max flights around the world, 24 hours a day, said a spokesman for the manufacturer, who was on the flight.

"The truth is anytime there's a problem with the 737 even if it's a coffee maker on the fritz, it's going to be news," said Henry Harteveldt, a former airline executive and president of Atmosphere Research Group, a travel consulting firm. He said that while some travelers may opt for other aircraft at first, if there aren't any major issues "it will be seen as just another plane."

The plane is returning to a dismal air travel market because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Airlines have slashed capacity this year, a stark contrast from 2019 when they were clamoring for the jets' return to meet passenger demand.

"In a way, the best thing for the 737 Max has been that it is has taken them 20 months to get the planes ready to going back into service and for almost a year we have had news of the coronavirus that has consumed more attention related to travel than the 737 Max," said Harteveldt.

The hope of airlines and Boeing is that most passengers will be unfazed.

"Schedule and price, that's the most important," said Honey Torrealba, a 26-year-old social media manager based in San Antonio who was flying to New York on the Max Tuesday.

American ordered 76 of the planes and had 24 in its fleet at the time of the grounding. The pandemic and lengthy grounding had prompted airlines to cancel or defer hundreds of orders, and sparking losses of $3.5 billion this year for Boeing. The pandemic and grounding have also hit prices for the jetliners and some carriers have sensed an opportunity to buy. Alaska Airlines, for example, last week upsized its 45-plane order by 23 in a big bet on the Max. Earlier this month European budget carrier Ryanair added 75 Max jets to its 135-plane order.

Boeing's stock closed up less than 0.1% at $216.25, while American Airlines' fell 1.3% to end at $15.86. Despite a recent rally this quarter fueled by the emergency authorization of two vaccines, Boeing shares are still down 34% this year, and American's have lost nearly 45%.

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