American Airlines is flying its employees, including top executives and reporters, in its Boeing 737 Max aircraft this week in hopes of building confidence in the jetliners, which will last 20 months after two crashes that killed 346 people lay long on the floor.
On Wednesday, the airline plans to demonstrate how it is pulling the planes out of storage and preparing them for flights at its maintenance base in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The airline also plans to give customers the opportunity to view the aircraft at airports before commercial service resumes.
The Federal Aviation Administration lifted the ban on aircraft on November 18 and approved airlines to restart flying the aircraft. Regulators around the world grounded the planes in less than five months in March 2019 after the two crashes of nearly new 737 Max planes.
American is expected to be the first commercial airline to resume flights with paying passengers. The first routes begin on December 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 was not required when flight crews originally switched from the older model to the 737 Max. The airline had 24 aircraft in its fleet at the time of landing.
Building confidence in aircraft is a priority for American and other airlines. A flight control system that was incorrectly activated was involved in both crashes – Lion Air Flight 610 in Indonesia in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in Ethiopia in March 2019 in Ethiopia. The pilots fought the system until the last moments of the flights.
These crashes forced Boeing to make the system less aggressive, which allowed pilots to have better control of the aircraft and, among other things, resulted in more redundancies, which the FAA has signed up to.
The airlines have announced that they will clearly state on their websites when a traveler books a flight on a 737 Max. Americans and the Southwest have said that passengers whose flight is operated on a Max can switch to another flight without paying a fee.
Southwest and United, which also have the 737 Max aircraft in their fleet, plan to return the jets to commercial service next year.
Max returns in a pandemic
American and other airlines are planning to fly the Max again just as the coronavirus pandemic strikes the industry. The virus and its associated travel restrictions have destroyed demand for air travel, forcing airlines not only to try to convince travelers that the Max is safe to fly, but that it is generally safe to fly.
Passenger traffic during the Thanksgiving hiatus hit a more than eight-month high, but is still around 40% year-on-year levels as many potential travelers stay at home or choose other modes of transport.
Airlines spent the pandemic stockpiling older aircraft as they reduced capacity to meet weak demand and cut costs. This is in stark contrast to the previous year, when Boeing's 737 Max customers absolutely wanted to keep the aircraft, as demand rose sharply, especially in the midsummer months.