Boeing 737 Max Is Cleared by F.A.A. to Resume Flights


After 20 months on the ground, Boeing’s 737 Max will soon fly again, ending a tragic episode that cost 346 people their lives and did serious damage to the big U.S. jet builder.

The company on Wednesday got clearance for the plane to return to American skies after convincing the Federal Aviation Administration that changes in design, software and crew training would eliminate the flaws that caused fatal crashes in 2018 and 2019.

This will not put Boeing’s troubles behind it. The company, which had predicted billions of dollars in losses because of the grounding, has also been crippled by the ruinous blow that the coronavirus pandemic has inflicted on global aviation.

An industrial icon, Boeing is the largest manufacturing exporter in the United States, one of the federal government’s biggest contractors, a blue chip stock and a major employer whose fortunes help shape the national economy.

Boeing expects to start 2021 with a global work force of about 130,000, down nearly 19 percent from its head count at the start of this year. Reviving its Max business will be a major test of the company’s ability to withstand the pandemic and re-establish its longtime stature.

“This is their core aircraft, so the future lays on the shoulders of the Max,” said Vitaly Guzhva, a professor of finance at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

The Max is the latest offering in Boeing’s 737 line, a single-aisle jet used by airlines around the world for flights of a few hours. There are more than 380 Max planes in the global fleet, according to Cirium, an aviation data firm. Thousands are on order.

Regulators elsewhere are expected to follow the F.A.A.’s lead, though it may take time to conclude their own reviews. The U.S. agency has worked with its counterparts in Canada, the European Union and Brazil on revised pilot training requirements.

The Max was grounded worldwide in March 2019 when the F.A.A. joined regulators in dozens of other countries in banning the plane after the two crashes, in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

Investigators have attributed the crashes to a range of problems, including engineering flaws, mismanagement and a lack of regulatory oversight. Attention focused on software known as MCAS, which was designed to push the plane’s nose down in certain situations.

In August, the F.A.A. determined that a series of proposals by Boeing “effectively mitigate” its safety concerns. The agency’s chief, Stephen Dickson, a former Delta Air Lines pilot, took the controls on a test flight in September, saying he liked what he saw.

“The path that led us to this point was long and grueling, but we said from the start that we would take the time necessary to get this right,” Mr. Dickson said in a video message on Wednesday. “I am 100 percent comfortable with my family flying on it.”

But at a news conference on Tuesday in anticipation of the F.A.A. announcement, relatives of victims on the second plane that crashed, Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, questioned whether Boeing had done enough to address safety concerns.

“Aviation should not be a trial-and-error process; it should be about safety,” said Naoise Ryan, whose husband, Mick, was aboard that flight on March 10, 2019. “If safety is not prioritized, then these companies should not be in business.”

In a letter to employees, Boeing’s chief executive, David Calhoun, welcomed the lifting of the ban, promising to proceed deliberately with the plane’s return to service and to “never forget” the victims of the crashes.

“We will honor them by holding close the hard lessons learned from this chapter in our history to ensure accidents like these never happen again,” he said.

The changes ordered by the F.A.A. include updating MCAS to avoid erroneous activation, updating display software to alert pilots when data from sensors conflicts, rerouting some internal wiring and updating the flight manual.

Even in the United States, it could be months before the Max starts carrying passengers again. The F.A.A. must still approve pilot training procedures for each U.S. airline operating the Max, planes need to be updated, and airlines suffering from a huge decline in traffic during the pandemic may feel little urgency to act quickly.

American Airlines is expected to be the first U.S. carrier to fly the Max, with plans to use the plane from Dec. 29 to Jan. 4 for flights connecting Miami with La Guardia Airport in New York.

United Airlines said it expected to start flying the Max in the first quarter of next year after 1,000 hours of work on every plane and “meticulous technical analysis.” Southwest Airlines said it did not expect to resume flights until the second quarter.

The Air Line Pilots Association, which represents nearly 60,000 pilots in North America, including those at United and Delta, said that it was still reviewing changes to training procedures, but that the proposed engineering fixes “are sound and will be an effective component that leads to the safe return to service.”


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