Grounded Boeing 737 Max nears milestone with flight targeted for June

Boeing Co. is closing in on a key milestone toward returning its beleaguered 737 Max to the commercial market, targeting later this month for hosting US regulators on a flight to test the jet’s upgraded systems.

Cars sit parked in an employee parking lot at a Boeing facility in Everett, Washingtonn on April 20. Photographer: Chona Kasinger/Bloomberg

The company separately is notifying airlines of an important fix to the grounded jetliner’s wiring, said two people familiar with the planning who asked not to be named discussing sensitive matters. A draft of revised pilot training for the plane, which has been parked around the world since March 2019 as a result of two fatal crashes that killed 346 people, is also being shared with airlines, the people said.

The moves were strong indications that Boeing is finally nearing the end of the jet’s 15-month grounding and controversy that has engulfed the company after the two fatal crashes.

“For Boeing, it could close a chapter that’s gone on longer than they wanted and kill a lot of speculation in the marketplace that the plane will never fly again,” said George Ferguson, analyst with Bloomberg Intelligence.

Boeing 737 MAX airplanes are seen after leaving the assembly line at a Boeing facility on August 13, 2019 in Renton, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

The flight by Federal Aviation Administration pilots to certify that the plane meets safety regulations is one of the critical remaining milestones. However, the people cautioned that the date hasn’t been finalized and has shifted repeatedly as Boeing completed its final work for regulators.

Boeing’s goal has been to return the 737 Max, a critical source of revenue, to commercial service in the third quarter. The Chicago-based company restarted manufacturing the single-aisle jet late last month, ending a five-month halt to work in its 737 factory in the Seattle suburb of Renton, Washington.

Boeing pared a decline on the news, falling 4.6% to $206.65 at 1:54 p.m. in New York after dropping as much as 8.9% amid a broader market slump. The company’s shares were down 37% this year through Tuesday, while the S&P 500 slipped 1.1%.

Boeing 737 MAX airplanes are stored on employee parking lots near Boeing Field, on June 27, 2019 in Seattle, Washington.

The company is revising a software system implicated in the two crashes that repeatedly drove down the noses of the jets due to a malfunction. Reviews of the plane’s safety following its March 13, 2019, grounding also discovered additional flaws that needed upgrading, including its flight-control computer, how electrical wires were bundled and software issues.

The FAA on Wednesday said it won’t approve the plane for passenger service until it is satisfied that all safety-related issues have been addressed.

“The FAA is in regular contact with Boeing as the company continues its work on the 737 Max,” the agency said in a statement. “The manufacturer must demonstrate compliance with all certification standards.”

Boeing declined to comment on the latest actions.

The FAA is broadly reviewing how it assesses pilot performance during malfunctions as a result of the crashes. A international panel of pilots known as the Joint Operations Evaluation Board must also review changes to the plane.

If all goes as planned, the jet will return to a market far different from that of March 2019, when regulators halted Max flying. A global pandemic has plunged the travel industry into its sharpest downturn on record, and many customers who were clamoring for the Max just months ago are now fighting for survival.

Boeing late last year discovered that there was a remote potential for wires within the same bundles on the jet to short-circuit in a way that could raise or lower the nose without a command by the pilots. As a result, it doesn’t meet aviation safety regulations.

After the FAA rejected the company’s initial suggestion that the wiring didn’t need repairing, Boeing has been reworking wiring on the 450-odd jets it had built but never delivered during the grounding. It began sending a service bulletin describing how to repair the wiring to airlines on Wednesday.