The Boeing 737 Max made its official return to U.S. skies Tuesday, more than 20 months after the aircraft was grounded by the Federal Aviation Administration and about six weeks since it was recertified.
American Airlines' Flight 718, the first commercial 737 Max flight by a major U.S. airline since its recertification Nov. 18, departed from Miami shortly before 10:30 a.m. EST and arrived at New York LaGuardia a little early at 1:12 p.m.
The airline has one of the largest 737 Max fleets in the USA – 24 planes at the time of the aircraft's grounding in March 2019.
Southwest Airlines CEO Gary Kelly said at the time of recertification that the Dallas-based carrier, which had 34 of the planes when they were grounded, doesn't anticipate putting the 737 Max on the schedule before spring 2021. The airline confirmed to USA TODAY on Monday that the plane is not on its 2021 schedule yet.
United, which had 14 planes and received several more since the grounding, said it will fly the first of its 737 Maxes on Feb. 11, though it has not announced the plane's route.
Though there have been several test flights leading up to and after the 737 Max's recertification, it has not been flown on any commercial flights in the USA since March 2019.
Brazil's National Civil Aviation Agency greenlighted the plane's return about a week after the FAA decision. On Dec. 9, GOL Linhas Aereas airline became the first to fly it commercially, according to flight-tracking site FlightRadar24.
The European Union's Aviation Safety Agency has not recertified the plane but said it expects to make its decision in mid-January.
EASA director Patrick Ky, told the BBC that he is "certain" the aircraft is safe and that EASA "left no stone unturned" in its review.
In October 2018, a 737 Max operated by Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea minutes after takeoff in Indonesia, killing all 189 aboard. Five months later, as concerns over its Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) were voiced, an Ethiopian Airlines jet with 157 passengers and crew crashed six minutes into its flight from Addis Ababa.
The FAA and its counterparts around the world grounded all 387 of the aircraft in service after the two crashes.
In both cases, pilots wrestled to keep their aircraft aloft as MCAS repeatedly pushed the nose down. The system was intended to compensate for the plane's new, larger engines, which had to be repositioned on the wings. That change led to changes in the plane's flight characteristics under certain circumstances. The pilots were unable to disengage the system, which sent them into dives from which they could not recover.
There were several hurdles that stretched out the recertification process. American, United and Southwest repeatedly added the plane back to their schedules, only to have to pull it back out when it became clear the plane wouldn't fly anytime soon.
The U.S Office of Special Counsel, acting on a whistleblower complaint, discovered that the FAA inspectors who originally certified pilots on the 737 Max were not qualified to do so.
Boeing was peppered by a series of disclosures that painted a dark picture of serious errors in development of the 737 Max, which had been rushed to compete with a similar plane being developed by archrival Airbus. An inquiry uncovered flaws in MCAS and efforts within Boeing to deceive regulators and its airline customers about the jetliner. By December 2019, CEO Dennis Muilenburg resigned.
Many of the shortcomings were detailed in a report from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee in September. It said Boeing test pilots identified MCAS problems as early as 2012, including a finding that it took 10 seconds to deal with an uncommanded activation. The problem was considered potentially "catastrophic," the report said.
There were also logistical obstacles to overcome.
Airlines had to retrain all 737 Max pilots, but there weren't enough flight simulators to accommodate them. As recertification neared completion, pilots' unions complained that the new manual was too confusing and could lead to errors in an emergency.
American's 737 Max FAQ page says pilots' retraining included simulator time and computer- and classroom-based training, all of which gave them an "improved understanding of 737 Max flight control systems and reinforce their technical knowledge of associated flight deck effects and operational procedures."
The planes had to be removed from storage after 21 months. In its FAQ about the 737 Max's return, American noted that it continued maintenance on all of the dormant planes, including checks of their engines and auxiliary power units, flight controls and other systems, as well as their tires and fuel tanks.
In the same document, American assured potentially uneasy customers that any passenger who did not want to fly on a 737 Max had the choice of being rebooked on the next available aircraft at no charge, adjusting their itinerary or canceling and getting a flight credit.
The airline said it made the booking process more transparent, making it easier to tell if a flight is on a 737 Max. Passengers whose flights are moved to a 737 Max will be notified through the American Airlines mobile app within 72 hours of departure, and anyone who doesn't want to fly will be reaccommodated on another aircraft.
S: USA Today