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American Airlines Is Preparing to Fly the Boeing 737 Max Again

Although thousands of planes are parked for the foreseeable future due to the pandemic, at least one long-grounded aircraft could make a comeback this year: the Boeing 737 Max.

American Airlines has put the Boeing 737 Max back on its schedule for the end of December. The airline says its return to service plan for the Max remains "highly dependent" on the FAA's recertification process, but the controversial plane is set to fly one route between New York LaGuardia and Miami International from December 29 to January 4, indicating that certification is likely near. Tickets open for booking on October 24, and customers will be alerted that their flight will be on a Max during the booking process. American says that once the plane is certified, it will phase in additional routes as well.

The aircraft has been grounded around the world since March 2019, after two similar crashes killed 346 people. Officials have since found that a faulty sensor on the plane could trigger a computer system on board to think the aircraft was climbing too steeply and in danger of a stall, causing the software to automatically push the plane's nose downward and out of the pilots' control. As a result, Boeing was accused of ignoring the safety flaws during its initial test flights of the plane, and the FAA was accused of lax oversight. The crisis has cost the company an estimated $18.7 billion and lead to the ouster of then-CEO Dennis Muilenburg. In the early days of the plane's grounding, Boeing rolled out a software fix to address the issue, but many months of tests and other investigations were required to lift the grounding order. Regulators now seem to be nearing a decision on certifying the Max. American Airlines says that it has added the plane back on its booking system, so that in the event the Max can fly again, crews can plan their schedules. If the plane doesn't earn recertification in time, the airline plans to shift its schedule accordingly. “We remain in contact with the FAA and Boeing on the certification process and we’ll continue to update our plans based on when the aircraft is certified,” an airline spokesperson said in a statement.

Although U.S. airlines havecontinually added and deletedthe Max's return date in their schedules as the grounding has stretched on (Muilenburg had erroneously predicted that the plane would be certified last year), there seems to be more momentum this time around. 

For one, the European Union's air regulator, EASA, recertified the plane on October 16. The agency has deemed the plane safe to fly, but it is stipulating that Boeing installs an additional software update on future models, as well as eventually retrofitting the existing fleet, a requirement that will take an estimated two years to fully execute. The additional software, a so-called synthetic sensor to ensure the computer is collecting accurate readings and the plane's nose is not pushed down, will be added to the larger 737 Max 10 planes in Europe that are set to roll out in 2022, according to Bloomberg. Other versions of the plane, including the smaller Max 8 and Max 9 models, will be retrofitted with the software. Still, EASA's executive director, Patrick Ky, said the plane would likely be flying in Europe's skies before the end of the year.

“Our analysis is showing that this is safe, and the level of safety reached is high enough for us,” Ky told Bloomberg. “What we discussed with Boeing is the fact that with the third sensor, we could reach even higher safety levels.” EASA test flights took place in September, and the agency expects to issue an airworthiness directive in November, followed by a four-week public comment period.

The FAA is also nearing its final decision. The agency's administrator,Steve Dickson, who is a former airline pilot, helmed a test flight of the plane last month. “I liked what I saw," Dickson said after the flight to Washington Post. "It responded well.” The agency also finalized its new recommendations for pilot training for the plane, which will be open for public comment until November 2. Although these are major milestone in the FAA's process, the agency still has several other regulatory hurdles it must clear, including a review of Boeing's final design changes, before the plane can ferry U.S. passengers again.

This article originally appeared on Condé Nast Traveller

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