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What the return of the 737 MAX means for the future of air travel

Last week, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) cleared the Boeing 737 MAX to return to service following some 600 days out of action. The aircraft model was grounded in March 2019 after two crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia which killed 346 people.

Engineers at Boeing have now fixed the problem and planes will undergo significant software and wiring changes, as well as additional training for pilots, before being allowed to return to the skies.

The FAA say they are now 100% confident in the safety of the aircraft, with administrator Steve Dickson saying “we’ve done everything humanly possible to make sure these types of crashes do not happen again”.

With the airline industry already facing its toughest ever challenge in the form of the coronavirus pandemic, the return of these highly efficient jets will be welcome news to many carriers. However, the controversy surrounding the aircraft will doubtless bring its own set of challenges as passengers carefully begin to return to the skies.

Aircraft Identification

Several US carriers, including American Airlines, have already started to sell tickets on the MAX, with customers able to see at the booking stage what model of aircraft they will be travelling on.

AA have assured customers they will always be able to identify whether they are travelling on a MAX, even receiving a notification if there is a scheduling change after their booking.

This will doubtlessly reassure many passengers who do not want to be among the first to step back onto the MAX’s gangway. United Airlines have even told passengers travelling on MAXs they can rebook at no extra cost.

It Takes Time

Despite these early sales it will still take a number of months before the majority of MAXs are back in the air. And between the retrofitting and the pandemic, many airlines are not in any particular rush to dust off the jumbo jets.

Southwest, who own the biggest MAX fleet in the United States, have said it may take three to four months for their planes to return to service.

Nevertheless, Southwest’s chief operations officer Mike Van de Ven said “We've got significant operational experience with the aircraft. It is our most cost-effective aircraft. It is our most reliable aircraft. It is our most environmentally friendly aircraft, and it's our most comfortable aircraft. So we really look forward to flying it again.”

The slowdown in air traffic caused by the pandemic has given most airlines some breathing space but as passenger numbers continue to grow, one airline will have to be the first to bite the bullet and get its MAXs back on the runway.

The Rest of the World

After a fairly damning series of investigations into Boeing, the FAA, and the relationship between them, most international aviation safety regulation agencies will likely be waiting to make up their own minds about the MAX.

Brazil yesterday cleared the aircraft to fly for its airlines but we are still waiting on news from Europe’s EASA and China’s CAAC among others.

Chinese regulators may be particularly interested in inspecting the aircraft, as the country has been trying to develop its own homegrown airliners for some time now.

Of course the major factor in the global return of the MAX will be how passengers respond to the aircraft. This being 2020, it will only take one viral video of a passenger screaming to be let off the plane and the whole operation could fall apart.

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