Inside American Airlines’ first public Boeing 737 MAX flight since its grounding

Dec 3, 2020

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American Airlines put its Boeing 737 MAX back in the sky yesterday, a symbolic first push for the carrier as it tries to restore confidence in its 24-and-counting fleet of the troubled aircraft.

The Fort Worth-based carrier will operate test flight with media and employees from its mega-hub in Dallas to its maintenance facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and back – a public show of faith in the jet that was grounded nearly two years ago by the Federal Aviation Administration following the second of two fatal crashes that took a combined 346 lives.

As part of the journey, invited guests will have the chance to see firsthand how the carrier says it’s safely bringing the planes back to service.

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The flight — American Flight 9750 — departed from a cold and dreary Dallas/Fort Worth (DFW) from Runway 18L just 11:09 a.m. ET (4.09 P.m GBT). The roughly 95 people on the flight — myself included — became the first members of the public to fly a MAX since March 2019.

Capt. Pete Gamble addressed those on board before departure, saying “aviation is built around a chain of safety. When it breaks, it’s up to those of us in the industry to mend it and bring it back”.

He continued, detailing changes that American has made to the plane and — in a sign of the times — reminded flyers about the carrier’s face-covering policy.

The aircraft, a two-year-old 737 MAX 8 (registration number N308RD), was to take passengers from DFW to Tulsa – where American runs a large maintenance facility – before returning them to DFW in the afternoon. Total flying time was expected to be about 65 minutes.

Just a day earlier, this same aircraft became the first 737 MAX that American returned to the skies. American CEO Doug Parker and his wife Gwen, as well as American’s president Robert Isom and other high-ranking employees, were on the positioning flight from Tulsa to Dallas.

Ahead of today’s flight, American Airlines employees were on hand early to prepare for the day’s events — checking identification and escorting staff to the tarmac in yellow vests. The vibe was upbeat, with those in attendance seemingly viewing it as a new chapter for the troubled jet.

It was hard to glean facial expressions under masks, but groups of friends and colleagues assembled for the flight traded stories and seemed excited about what was to come.

More broadly, it seemed clear that today’s today represented a step forward for the beleaguered jet, which was introduced in 2017. It quickly became a bestseller for Boeing but was grounded worldwide last spring after the crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 in late 2018 and an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 in March 2019.

Now, the MAX has been cleared to once again take to the skies after FAA lifted its more than 20-month grounding on 18 November.

That has paved the way toward restoring commercial service with the jet, though the planes must receive system updates and pilots must undergo new training before being cleared to fly again. American plans to give a hands-on demo of some of these updates during the two-hour tour of the maintenance facility.

However, just because the MAX is certified once again doesn’t mean passengers will necessarily be comfortable flying the jet.

On Thursday, American will fly the first of five employee-only “flights to nowhere” that are intended to have the same effort on its workforce.

“We know that restoring our customers’ confidence in the 737 MAX starts with ensuring our own team members are comfortable,” American said in an internal memo explaining why it’s running those missions that will continue until 17 December.

After the employee-only flights, the carrier will offer on-the-ground aircraft tours to its largest corporate customers. This show-and-tell will include time with American’s top pilots and mechanics, though the details are still being worked out, a carrier spokesperson confirmed to TPG.

Still, critics of the plane and the effort to return it to service remain. Families of the victims of one of the 737 MAX crashes called today’s flight “a media stunt” and said regulators were rushing certification. That only underscores the immediate challenge airlines face over the public’s perception of the MAX.

For American, its confidence-boosting steps for the MAX all point toward 29 December, when it plans to fly the first commercial MAX flight in the U.S. from Miami (MIA) and New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA). Until 4 January, the MAX is slated to operate one daily round trip between these cities.

Throughout January, AA expects to gradually phase more 737 MAX aircraft into revenue service, with 170 total flights scheduled during the first month of the year, Cirium schedules show.

Isom, American’s president, recently told the Skift Forum that “I’ll be on the first flight from Miami to LaGuardia and I’ll have a lot of friends on that flight as well”.

While American is working to convince would-be flyers that it’s safe to fly a MAX, worries remain. Just look at the numbers: Southwest recently confirmed that roughly 25% of flyers aren’t comfortable flying the MAX.

Fortunately, all the U.S. airlines that currently have MAXes in their fleets — including American — have confirmed that nervous travellers can change flights if they’re booked on a MAX. (It’s easy to determine whether you’re booking a flight on the newly recertified jet.)

Looking to the future, American plans to have 100 MAXes in its fleet. As such, avoiding the MAX will become harder and harder in the coming years. Alaska – which will soon take delivery of its first MAX – as well as Southwest and United all plan to fly the jet in 2021.

For now, American is working to educate the public about its plan for safely bringing its MAXes back to the skies. Stay tuned to TPG for more coverage from the demonstration flight.

All photos by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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