Airlines

American Airlines starts Boeing 737 Max flights to boost confidence in jets after fatal crashes

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Key Points
  • American Airlines is flying executives, staff and media on its Boeing 737 Max this week.
  • The carrier is set to become the first U.S. airline to resume commercial service of the Max after two fatal crashes prompted a worldwide ban on the planes.
  • The FAA lifted a 20-month grounding of the Max in mid-November.

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How airlines are working to convince travelers that the Boeing 737 Max is safe

TULSA, Oklahoma — 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 after two crashes that killed 346 people.

At its maintenance base in Tulsa, Oklahoma on Wednesday, the airline laid out how it's pulling the planes out of storage and preparing them for flights. American is also planning to allow customers to view the jets at airports before commercial service resumes.

An exterior view of an American Airlines B737 MAX airplane is seen at DFW International Airport in Dallas, Texas on December 2, 2020. The Boeing 737 MAX will take another key step in its comeback to commercial travel on December 2, 2020 by attempting to reassure the public with a test flight by American Airlines conducted for the news media.
Cooper Neill | AFP | Getty Images

The Federal Aviation Administration lifted its ban on the planes on Nov. 18, clearing airlines to start flying the jets again. Regulators worldwide grounded the planes in March 2019 after the two crashes of nearly new 737 Max jets within less than five months of one another.

The design flaws discovered on the planes and that federal regulators certified the planes as safe in 2017 hurt the reputation of both Boeing and the FAA.

American is set to become the first U.S. carrier to resume flights with paying passengers on the 737 Max. It plans to start commercial flights between Miami and New York's LaGuardia Airport on Dec. 29.

"You don't build confidence when the plane sits on the ground," American Airlines' COO David Seymour told CNBC at the Tulsa base on Wednesday. "You build confidence when it's out there flying and it's doing the job it's intended to do."

The airline's leaders didn't plan to be the first among U.S. carriers to relaunch the plane, Seymour said.

"We said we were going to fly this airplane when it's safe and the fact that our pilots and flights attendants and our mechanics say its safe, we're ready to fly it," said Seymour. "Safety isn't about rushing. Safety is about doing things right."

Pilot training began this week and includes computer-based instruction 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.

Boosting 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. Pilots battled the system until the flights' final moments.

Some family members of passengers killed in the crashes dismissed American's media event as a publicity stunt.

"The promotional flight was arranged by the American Airlines marketing team simply because the company made the mistake of buying more Max aircraft than almost any other airline," Michael Stumo, whose daughter Samya Stumo was killed on Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, said in a statement.

Convincing travelers

Chicago's O'Hare airport with Christmas decorations, Dec. 2, 2020.
Leslie Josephs | CNBC

Those crashes forced Boeing to make software changes to ensure the system less is aggressive and gives pilots greater control of the plane, and added more redundancies, among other changes, which the FAA has signed.

American Airlines technicians on Wednesday walked reporters through some of those changes, which include installing the software from a laptop to the airplanes' flight control computer, connected through an ethernet cable, a process that takes up to roughly six hours. Mechanics said they had to put desiccant on the planes stored in Tulsa because of high humidity in storage.

"Back in the spring, birds really wanted to make a nest up in the rudder but we were out there enough that they didn't," said Brian Mayhall, an American Airlines maintenance technician based in Tulsa.

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.

United and Southwest which also have the 737 Max planes in their fleets, plan to return the jets to commercial service in the first and second quarters of next year, respectively.

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 demand, forcing airlines to not just try to convince customers that the Max is safe but that they won't catch Covid-19 on their flight.

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.