Boeing's upgraded 737 MAX completes first flight with media onboard

By Tracy Rucinski
DALLAS (Reuters) - Boeing Co's 737 MAX made its first flight after landing with media on board on Wednesday to demonstrate to passengers that the redesigned jet is safe after a 20-month safety ban.
In a further vote of confidence, the European low-cost airline Ryanair should order up to 75 additional 737 MAX jets, industry experts said.
The American Airlines 737 MAX flight on Wednesday took 45 minutes from Dallas, Texas to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Coming weeks before the first commercial passenger flight on December 29th, it is part of a public relations effort to address concerns about the aircraft.
Boeing's best-selling jet was shut down in March 2019 after two crashes in five months killed a total of 346 people. This was the industry's worst security crisis in decades and undermined the leadership of the U.S. Aviation Administration.
Wednesday's flight marked the first time since landing anyone other than regulatory and industrial personnel flown on the MAX, sparking investigations focused on software overwhelming the pilots.
The mood on Wednesday's flight, which included a Reuters reporter, was subdued. A few passengers mingled and chatting before landing when applause broke out.
In keeping with the COVID-19 pandemic that has ravaged commercial aviation, each of the 90 or so journalists, flight attendants and other American Airlines employees wore face masks on the flight.
"The history of aviation is based on a safety chain," said Captain Pete Gamble to the passengers shortly before take-off. "If the safety chain breaks, it is up to us in the industry to fix it and bring it back."
Last month, the US Federal Aviation Administration approved the jet after design changes and new training.
A smooth restart of MAX is seen as critical to Boeing's reputation and finances, which have been badly hit by a MAX shipments freeze and the coronavirus crisis.
Airlines and leasing companies have spent hundreds of billions of dollars buying the latest upgrade to the 737, the world's best-selling passenger jet.
Some airlines, attracted to heavy discounts and eager to improve the reputation of the MAX that they built their fleet plans around, are now stepping in to show commercial support.
INTENSIVE PUBLICITY
Boeing is preparing for intense public relations, even in the case of routine incidents, by manning a 24-hour "situation room" to oversee every MAX flight worldwide, and has briefed some industry commentators on recommissioning details.
"We continue to work closely with global regulators and our customers to bring the fleet safely back into commercial service," said a Boeing spokesman.
Brazilian Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes is planning a media event for the redesigned MAX this month.
The PR efforts are aimed at highlighting software and training upgrades that the FAA said would remove any doubts about the aircraft's safety.
However, family members of the victims have protested the resumption of duty, saying it is premature for a final investigative report into the second crash in Ethiopia to be published.
Boeing has toned down its original plans for the plane's return as the crisis dragged on longer than expected - a high-profile advertising campaign, ceremony in the Seattle area and a tour on an Oman Air 737 MAX were canceled, industry insiders said.
In an example of how airlines began pedaling references to the MAX brand, the name "MAX" was omitted from the safety cards on Wednesday and only displayed "737".
(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Dallas, Texas; additional reporting by Marcelo Rochabrun in Sao Paulo, Tim Hepher in Paris; writing by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle; editing by David Evans and Matthew Lewis)
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