Boeing 737 Max returns to US skies for first time in 21 months

Paying passengers flew on a Boeing 737 Max in the US on Tuesday for the first time since safety regulators allowed the plane to fly again after two deadly crashes.

The American Airlines flight from Miami to New York City had about 87 passengers onboard, according to an airline spokeswoman. The flight landed safely just after 1pm local time and a return flight was scheduled for later in the afternoon.

The Max was grounded worldwide in March 2019 after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia that killed 346 people.

In both crashes, the aircraft’s faulty flight control system software was blamed for forcing the plane into nosedives which pilots were unable to correct.

Boeing has said it knew there was a problem with the aircraft a year before the crashes but did not take action. A March 2020 congressional report said Boeing promoted a “culture of concealment” and of “grossly inefficient” oversight in attempts to get the Max approved.

The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was criticized for its role in certifying the aircraft. Recent reports from the US Senate and House identified safety oversight lapses by the agency in its initial certification of the plane.

In November, the FAA cleared the planes again and provided a 115-page directive outlining required design changes, training for pilots and maintenance protocols.

The FAA administrator, Stephen Dickson, said a comprehensive, methodical and deliberate review process took place before the Max was certified this year. Dickson, a former military and airline pilot, operated a test flight in September.

The FAA joins regulators in Brazil which have also allowed airlines to resume using the planes for paying passengers if they make changes to the plane and provide additional training to pilots. Officials in Canada and Europe are also expected to approve the aircraft in the coming weeks.

Brazil’s Gol airlines became the first to fly the 737 Max after it was grounded earlier this month. Aeromexico has also used the plane for dozens of flights.

Passengers on the Tuesday Miami to New York flight included American Airlines’ president and several aviation bloggers. The plane’s captain, Sean Roskey, announced over the PA system that his wife was on board. “We have the utmost confidence in this aircraft,” Roskey said.

American Airlines plans to use the Max for one round trip flight a day between Miami and New York through Monday before adding the aircraft to other routes. United Airlines said it anticipates being able to use the planes starting 11 February. Delta Air Lines and JetBlue Airways do not use the 737 Max.

American Airlines said it has an “enhanced notification process” to alert travelers if they have been moved to a Max and will give those travelers an option to switch to a different flight. Other airlines which soon plan to fly the Max, including United, Southwest and Alaska, have said they will allow passengers to change their flights at no additional cost.

Earlier this month, Senate investigators released a scathing report detailing lapses in aviation safety oversight by the FAA. The Senate committee on commerce, science and transportation report included disclosures from more than 50 whistleblowers.

The committee chairman, the Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker, said the report’s findings were “troubling”. He added: “It is clear that the agency requires consistent oversight to ensure their work to protect the flying public is executed fully and correctly.”


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