A Boeing 737 MAX airplane
They can get back to the skies, but most US airlines will put in extra hours of testing and pilot training before they launch full passenger services on these. Image Credit: Reuters

New York: US airlines are preparing to get the Boeing Co. 737 Max ready for commercial flights after regulators lifted a 20-month grounding. American Airlines Group Inc. is poised to be the first carrier to bring back the Max since the flying ban began in March 2019.

The company confirmed that it's planning to start operating the plane December 29 on service between Miami and New York, but took pains to say that passengers won't have to ride on Boeing's best-selling jet if they don't want to.

"Our customers will be able to easily identify whether they are traveling on one even if schedules change," American said in a message to employees. "If a customer prefers to not fly on this aircraft, we'll provide flexibility to ensure they can be easily re-accommodated."

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Get things right

The Federal Aviation Administration set out detailed requirements that Max operators must complete, including software changes to a system linked to two fatal crashes and maintenance procedures needed to bring the jets out of storage. About 1,000 hours of work must be done on each Max before it flies again, said United Airlines Holdings Inc., which anticipates carrying passengers on the aircraft in the first quarter of 2021.

Still unknown is the reaction of the flying public to the return of a jetliner that's meant to become a workhorse of the global fleet, alongside Airbus SE's A320neo family. Two Boeing Max crashes - one off the coast of Indonesia more than two years ago and another in Ethiopia early last year - killed 346 people and prompted the grounding.

Test them out

American said it would conduct non-revenue flights next month before returning the Max to commercial service. At Southwest Airlines Co., the largest Max operator, CEO Gary Kelly said he and other company leaders would fly on the carrier's Max jets before any customers do.

Southwest is confident in Boeing's fixes, Kelly said in a message to employees. He also highlighted the need for "thousands of hours of work, inspections, and the software updates before any of our customers board a Southwest 737 Max."

The Dallas-based carrier won't carry commercial passengers on the plane until the second quarter of next year. Southwest said it flew almost 40,000 Max flights and more than 89,000 flight hours before the grounding.

Hit the simulators

Alaska Air Group Inc. said it would take delivery of its first Max in January, a key consideration for Boeing as the planemaker seeks to unlock billions of dollars in cash by handing over about 450 jets built during the grounding. Pilots at Alaska Air will get eight hours of simulator training, and the Seattle-based company will fly the Max 19,000 miles and 50 hours before entering service in March.

"We have high expectations" and confidence "that Boeing has made the "required changes" and necessary improvements," the carrier said in an email. "With these enhancements and the FAA's thorough inspection processes, this aircraft will "meet the high safety standards we expect"."

If a customer prefers to not fly on this aircraft, we'll provide flexibility to ensure they can be easily re-accommodated

- American Airlines in a statement on passenger options related to the 737 Max