SEATTLE — Though Boeing’s 737 MAX will return to service at a bleak moment in the airline industry when the pandemic has dried up demand, some carriers want the plane flying again as soon as possible.
The first to fly will be American Airlines, which has scheduled a MAX round-trip flight from Miami to New York’s La Guardia airport for Dec. 29.
According to an internal memo sent Sunday to Alaska Airlines pilots, the Seattle-based carrier plans to take its first 737-9 MAX delivery early next year and start flying it in service by the end of March.
United Airlines expects to schedule flights on the MAX in late January or February.
Southwest Air, which has decided to take the time to put all of its 9,000 pilots through MAX training before any of them fly passengers, said it likely won’t put the MAX on its schedule before April.
Following the Federal Aviation Administration’s lead, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) along with Transport Canada and Brazilian air safety regulator ANAC are also expected to clear the MAX to fly by year end.
That will pave the way for Ireland’s Ryanair to start taking MAX deliveries and for Air Canada and Calgary-based WestJet to begin flying the three dozen grounded MAXs already delivered into Canada.
Offering passengers reassurance and flexibility
Before American flies passengers on the MAX in late December, it has plans to try to reassure the public that the plane is safe.
The airline will take employees and the press on demonstration flights out of Dallas. And it will invite corporate customers to tour the MAX on the ground in Dallas, Miami and New York, where they can ask questions of pilots who will fly the plane.
Southwest doesn’t plan demo flights but said it will conduct “readiness flights” on each aircraft before returning the MAX fleet to scheduled service. And CEO Gary Kelly indicated he will likely fly on a MAX before passengers do so.
Though Boeing and some airlines have begun avoiding use of the now-tainted MAX brand name, instead referring only to the 737-8 or 737-9 models, all the U.S. carriers say they will make it transparent to travelers what plane they are flying on.
All three U.S. airlines that were operating the MAX before the grounding– American, United and Southwest — said they will rebook free of charge any passengers who balk at flying on a MAX.
American spokesperson Sarah Jantz said if a MAX is switched onto a flight previously scheduled to be flown by some other plane, the airline will let passengers know via email, text and push notifications.
“If a customer doesn’t want to fly on a 737 MAX aircraft, they won’t have to,” she said. “We’ll provide flexibility to ensure our customers can be easily re-accommodated if they prefer not to fly on one.”
If a reluctant passenger doesn’t want to re-book, the airlines will offer either refunds or vouchers for future travel depending on the type of ticket.
Why airlines want the MAX back now
Despite the downturn in demand, American, Southwest, United and Alaska are all keen to fly the MAX so they can swap out older aircraft to eke out whatever savings they can from the jet’s fuel efficiency advantage — the 737 MAX burns 14% less fuel than the previous model 737 NG.
When air traffic eventually recovers, airlines will also use the MAX’s longer range to open up new long-distance routes.
For example, when United first started flying the MAX, it flew the plane between Houston, Texas, and Anchorage, Alaska, a route too long for the 737 NG.
“The longer range and better fuel efficiency of the MAX creates new options for flying a greater number of seats between more city pairs,” said a person familiar with United’s plans.
It’s likely United will focus MAX flights out of its hubs in Houston and Denver.
Some international customers are also eager to get the MAX.
Low-cost carrier Ryanair is aggressively seeking to increase market share in Europe while rival airlines contract, and is negotiating a possible additional MAX order in exchange for a large discount.
Eddie Wilson, CEO of the main Dublin-based unit of Ryanair, speaking this month at a virtual webinar hosted by Australia-based CAPA — Centre for Aviation, said the low-cost carrier wants to have up to 30 MAXs by next summer and has simulators and pilots ready for training.
“We’ve got to get this aircraft,” Wilson said. “It’s a fantastic aircraft. It’s probably going to be the aircraft that has got the most scrutiny from safety regulators. And we are really looking forward to having it in our fleet.”
MAX maintenance and pilot training
The FAA’s green light for the MAX to return to service is the signal for a frantic period of aircraft modification and maintenance, as well as simultaneous intensive pilot training, before the plane can actually fly passengers.
All of the U.S. airlines that will operate the MAX will soon commence the new pilot training mandated by the FAA.
That consists of approximately five hours’ training in total: two hours of computer based training followed by a one-hour briefing to prepare for a two-hour session in a full-flight simulator handling the flight controls in various scenarios.
Southwest has installed and certified nine 737 MAX simulators to conduct the flight training with its 9,000 pilots. American and United will introduce MAX flights on a rolling basis as teams of pilots come out of training.
Boeing faces its own stiff challenge to get roughly 450 as-yet-undelivered MAXs out of mothballs and ready for customers. With many orders canceled, it must also find a new customer for more than 60 of those jets.
In addition, it will have to be deeply involved with the airlines that have the 385 MAXs that were in service before the jet was grounded.
As foreign regulators follow the FAA in clearing the MAX to fly, Boeing will set up airplane modification lines in various parts of the world to train the teams of mechanics that will do the work for each airline.