FAA starts Boeing 737 Max test flights, a milestone in getting the planes back in service after crashes

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A Boeing 737 MAX 8 airliner takes off from Renton Municipal Airport near the company’s factory, on March 22, 2019 in Renton, Washington.

Stephen Brashear | Getty Images

The Federal Aviation Administration began certification flights of the Boeing 737 Max Monday, a key step toward permitting the planes to return to service after two fatal crashes more than a year ago.

The 737 Max, Boeing’s best-seller, has been grounded worldwide since March 2019 following the crashes — one in Indonesia and another in Ethiopia — within five months of one another. All 346 people on the flights were killed in the crashes. Boeing has since changed a flight-control system that was implicated in both crashes and has made other tweaks. Additional scrutiny of the aircraft contributed to repeated delays in the recertification process.

Boeing shares were up more than 8% in early-afternoon trading before the start of the flights, leading the Dow Jones Industrial Average higher.

“The FAA is following a deliberate process and will take the time it needs to thoroughly review Boeing’s work,’ the FAA said in a statement. “We will lift the grounding order only after we are satisfied that the aircraft meets certification standards.”

The first flight departed 10 a.m. Pacific time from Seattle with other flights scheduled over about three days. “The tests are being conducted by test pilots and engineers from the FAA and Boeing,” the FAA said.

Regulators’ evaluation of the planes will continue for several more weeks and Boeing expects they will be back in commercial service by late fall. Among the other steps include an international evaluation of minimum pilot training requirements, the FAA said over the weekend.

“It is important to note, getting to this step does not mean the FAA has completed its compliance evaluation or other work associated with return to service,” the FAA said in a note to lawmakers on Sunday. “The FAA has not made a decision on return to service.  We have a number of steps remaining after the conclusion of the certification flights.”

Boeing late last month resumed production of the planes after a pause earlier this year. 

While it still has a robust backlog, Boeing has logged dozens of cancellations from customers.  The Covid-19 pandemic is also expected to mean lower-than-usual travel demand for years, Boeing and airline executives have said, which could further hurt demand for new planes.

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