American Airlines is taking the next step to return the Boeing 737 Max jet into commercial service after it was grounded for nearly two years over safety concerns.
The Fort Worth-based carrier invited press reporters and photographers on board one of the planes Wednesday to demonstrate its confidence in the plane's safety.
American flew journalists from Dallas to the airline's maintenance center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where crews explained how they are bringing the planes out of storage and making FAA-required changes.
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“Really the next priority would be to get our pilots trained as well as get the aircraft through their operational readiness flight and to finish off any air worthiness directives that need to be done to the aircraft," said Chris Hurrell, Boeing 737 Fleet Captain for American Airlines.
Regulators around the world grounded the Max in March 2019, after the crash of an Ethiopian Airlines jet. That happened less than five months after another Max flown by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the Java Sea. A total of 346 passengers and crew members on both planes were killed.
Investigations of the two crashes revealed a problem with the flight control system was to blame. Since the first crash in October 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has invested 60,000 hours – the equivalent of nearly seven years – investigating the cause of the two incidents.
The FAA cleared the Boeing 737 Max to fly again last month, providing that the company and the airlines invest the time and resources necessary to make the proper corrections to the system and train the pilots on the aircraft.
American is the only U.S. airline to put the Max in its schedule so far, starting with one round trip daily between New York and Miami beginning Dec. 29. United expects to start using the plane early next year, while Dallas-based Southwest said its Max jets won't fly before the second quarter of 2021. While adamant that the plane is now safe, AA says it will allow passengers who don't want to fly on it to change flights.
"Our promise to any customer that flies on us is that if you get on the 737 Max and you don't want to fly, we;'re going to allow you to change," said AA Chief Operating Officer David Seymour.
American Airlines has scheduled pilots to begin computer and simulator training at the beginning of December, The Dallas Morning News reported. Some 4,000 American Airlines pilots need to be trained on the Max, but that will likely take place over months. American Airlines owns one simulator at its headquarters but has contracts to use other simulators in the area.
Relatives of People Killed in Crashes Still Skeptical
Some relatives of people who died in the crashes -- and who still believe the plane is unsafe -- expressed outrage at both Boeing and American over what they termed a publicity stunt.
Zipporah Kuria, a British citizen whose father died in the second Max crash, said Boeing and the FAA should instead turn over documents on changes made to fix the plane and how they were tested. The company has withheld the documents, saying they cover trade secrets.
"I feel like Boeing is using the press to leverage public trust instead of actually genuinely earning public trust," she said. "I'm really disgusted by the whole thing and the fact that American Airlines would pay for that. Their focus is more about the profit and corporate interest than it is about consumer safety."
Some people who lost family members believe that the FAA erred by not accepting all the recommendations made by pilots and aviation professionals during a public comment period on its proposal to let the plane fly again.
Scrutiny of the plane has focused on a flight-control system called MCAS, which repeatedly pushed down the nose of the plane before both crashes. Boeing, which describes changes to the plane on its website, and the FAA say the system has been made less powerful and easier for pilots to override.
Some of the family members, however, wanted a deeper, nose-to-tail review of the plane. And they don't trust Boeing or the FAA, which allowed the plane to keep flying after the first crash, in Indonesia in 2018.
"It hasn't been evaluated to the point where we can say that it's safe," said Nadia Milleron, whose daughter was killed in the second crash, which occurred in Ethiopia. "This plane hasn't flown very much with this new software, the revamped MCAS, interfacing with the plane. It's not responsible for them to put you on this flight."
It's unclear whether the flying public will accept the plane or avoid it. Some industry officials believe that fear of getting on the plane has lessened with time. American says that if customers don't want to fly on a Max, it will have the flexibility to put them on other planes.
Associated Press airlines writer David Koenig contributed to this report