Boeing’s troubled 737 MAX plane returned to American skies Tuesday, carrying paying passengers in the United States for the first time in almost two years.
Those passengers were aboard American Airlines Flight 718, which left Miami about 10:30 a.m. and landed after 1 p.m. New York’s LaGuardia Airport, well ahead of schedule. The plane made the return trip Tuesday afternoon, ending a long and difficult chapter for Boeing.
The MAX was grounded worldwide in March 2019 after 346 people were killed in a pair of crashes, separated by months, in Indonesia and Ethiopia. The accidents and revelations about the plane’s shortcomings sullied the company’s reputation and cost it tens of billions of dollars in damages, government fines and lost orders.
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has been criticized by lawmakers and safety experts for doing a poor job in certifying the MAX in the first place, last month became the first major regulator to lift its grounding order. Boeing and the airlines that use the MAX are required to install software updates, modify wiring and make other changes to the planes before they can fly again.
The FAA has since been joined by regulators in Brazil. Canadian and European aviation officials are expected to follow with approvals within weeks.
The families of those killed aboard the two fatal flights argue that the MAX is still unfit to fly. In a letter to U.S. lawmakers last week, several relatives of those killed said that “the entire recertification process is suspect” after a Senate committee issued a scathing report this month, criticizing Boeing and the FAA for safety and oversight failures.
The MAX is a workhorse of the global airline fleet, used for domestic flights and some shorter international ones. It is significantly more fuel efficient than its predecessors and, as a smaller, single-aisle plane, is the kind of aircraft that airlines have favored in recent years to serve growing demand for nonstop flights.
Boeing has scored some new orders for the MAX in recent weeks. Ryanair, the low-cost European airline, agreed to buy 75 MAX jets, and Alaska Airlines expanded an order by nearly two dozen planes.
But Boeing’s overall order backlog contracted by more than 1,000 planes in 2020. And the plane’s reintroduction is likely to be slowed as airlines struggle with the deep and sustained drop in demand for flights caused by the coronavirus pandemic. In the United States, airlines are generally carrying fewer than half as many passengers as they did a year earlier.
American plans to use the MAX for daily flights between Miami International Airport and LaGuardia through Monday. The airline plans to increase service after that, using the plane for as many as 38 flights a day through mid-February. Between mid-February and early March, American expects to operate as many as 91 MAX flights per day.
The captain of the American flight Tuesday, Sean Roskey, told passengers before taking off that he had “the utmost confidence in the safety of this aircraft,” according to video shared by an NBC News reporter who was on the flight. “I just want to thank all of you for your trust in all of us,” said Roskey, who has worked at American for nearly three decades.
His wife, Ann, was on the flight, as was the mother of the first officer, Moraima Maldonado, according to the airline. Roskey and Maldonado also piloted the return flight to Miami.
Before the plane was grounded, American operated more than 18,000 flights using the MAX. It has 31 of those jets in its fleet, with 69 on order.
Like other airlines, American has said that, for now, it will allow passengers worried about flying on the MAX to rebook their trip to avoid the plane or to receive credit for future travel. The airline’s approximately 2,600 Boeing 737 pilots will all be retrained to fly the MAX, a process that involves classroom briefings and training in a simulator. In addition to FAA oversight, each MAX jet will be subject to internal inspection and a readiness flight before it carries passengers. Tuesday’s flight had capacity to seat 172 passengers, 16 in business class and the rest in economy.
United Airlines said it expects to start flying the MAX on Feb. 11, out of Denver and Houston. The airline has already scheduled flights using the plane from Houston to Los Angeles, Orlando, San Diego and Tampa, and between Los Angeles and Orlando, according to Cirium, an aviation data company.
Alaska Airlines is scheduled to use the plane for some West Coast flights starting March 1. Southwest Airlines, a major Boeing client that operates an all-737 fleet, has said it does not expect to fly the plane until the second quarter. Delta Air Lines does not use the plane.
It will be important to public perception of both Boeing and the MAX that the first few months of flights be free of any major problems. Last week, Air Canada was forced to divert a MAX plane being moved from Marana, Arizona, to Montreal because of engine trouble. The plane, which had only three pilots on board, landed without incident in Tucson, Arizona, the airline said Monday.
Even while the MAX was grounded, Boeing worked closely with airlines to prepare for its eventual return, repeatedly surveying passengers around the world and developing strategies to rebuild trust in the plane. Those approaches include allowing anxious customers to rebook flights and creating information cards for flight crews to hand out.
More recently, the planemaker published information online explaining in plain language changes made to the MAX and the process for its return to the skies.
While American is the first U.S. airline to put the MAX to use, Gol, a Brazilian company, became the first in the world to resume flying the plane for commercial service this month. Aeromexico has since started flying the MAX, too.