American Airlines is flying its employees, including top executives and reporters on its Boeing 737 Max planes this week in hopes of boosting confidence in the jetliners that were grounded for 20 months following two crashes that killed 346 people.
On Wednesday, the airline plans to demonstrate how it’s pulling the planes out of storage and preparing them for flights at its maintenance base in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The airline is also planning to allow customers to view the planes at airports before commercial service resumes.
The Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on the planes on Nov. 18, clearing airlines to start flying the planes again. Regulators worldwide grounded the planes in March 2019 after the two crashes of nearly new 737 Max planes within less than five months of one another.
American is set to become the first commercial airline to resume flights with paying passengers with initial routes set to begin on Dec. 29 between Miami and New York’s LaGuardia Airport.
Pilot training begins this week, including computer-based training and a session in a flight simulator, a step that wasn’t required when flight crews originally transitioned to the 737 Max from the older model. The airline had 24 of the planes in its fleet at the time of the grounding.
Lifting confidence in the planes is a priority for American and other airlines. A flight control system that erroneously activated was implicated in both crashes – Lion Air flight 610 in Indonesia in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in Ethiopia in March 2019 in Ethiopia. Pilots battled the system until the flights’ final moments.
Those crashes forced Boeing to make the system less aggressive, giving pilots greater control of the plane and providing more redundancies among other changes, which the FAA has signed off on.
Airlines have said they will clearly note on their websites when a traveler books a flight operated on a 737 Max. American and Southwest have said passengers whose flight is operated on a Max will be able to switch to another flight without paying a fee.
Southwest and United, which also have the 737 Max planes in their fleets plan to return the jets to commercial service next year.
Max returns in pandemic
American and other airlines are planning to resume flying the Max just as the industry is reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. The virus and accompanying travel restrictions have devastated air travel demand, forcing airlines to not just try to convince travelers that the Max is safe to fly but that it’s safe to fly in general.
Passenger traffic over the Thanksgiving break hit a more than eight-month high but is still about 40% of last year’s levels as many potential travelers stay home or opt for other modes of transportation.
Airlines have spent the pandemic storing older planes as they slashed capacity to meet weak demand and cut costs. It stands in stark contrast to last year when Boeing’s 737 Max customers were eager to receive the planes as demand surged, particularly in the peak summer months.