Boeing 737 MAX aircraft
File photo of grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft parked at Boeing Field in Seattle. Image Credit: Reuters

Washington (Bloomberg): US government approvals needed to return Boeing Co.’s 737 Max to the skies won’t be completed until 2020, the top US aviation regulator has said, dashing the company’s hopes to complete key milestones this year needed to end the aircraft’s nine-month grounding.

“If you do the math, it’s going to extend into 2020,” Federal Aviation Administration Administrator Stephen Dickson said. “We’re going to do it diligently because safety is absolutely our priority with this airplane.”

Regulators worldwide grounded Boeing’s top-selling aircraft last March, days after the second of two crashes in a five-month span that killed 346 people. Boeing said November 11 that it hoped the FAA would approve its fixes to the 737 Max by the end of 2019, though it acknowledged that completing new training requirements for pilots would likely slide into January.

No easy route back

After the FAA clearance, airlines will still need several weeks or more to get their planes back in the air after being held in storage for months. Southwest Airlines Co. and other major US carriers with grounded 737 Max jets have already pulled the planes from their schedules through at least early March.

“We continue to work closely with the FAA and global regulators toward certification and the safe return to service of the MAX,” Boeing said in an email response.

Dickson later testified before the US House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. It was the panel’s fifth hearing on the 737 Max. The committee, which grilled Boeing President Dennis Muilenburg on October 30, is turning its attention to how the FAA certified the plane with a flight control system implicated in the two fatal crashes.

The agency had already come under fire for its response to the first crash, when a Lion Air 737 Max plunged into the Java Sea in October 2018. The FAA grounded the jet days after an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max crashed on March 10, after regulators in other countries already had.

After the October Lion Air crash, the FAA allowed jet continue to keep flying despite an agency analysis indicating the jet could have averaged a crash every two to three years without changes to the plane, the “Wall Street Journal” reported Wednesday, citing an internal agency analysis.