FAA clears Boeing 737 Max to fly again after 20-month grounding spurred by deadly crashes

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FAA chief Steve Dickson flies a Boeing 737 MAX, from Boeing Field on September 30, 2020 in Seattle, Washington.
Mike Siegel | Getty Images

The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday cleared the Boeing‘s 737 Max to fly again, a turning point in a protracted crisis for the aircraft giant stemming from two crashes of its top-selling plane that killed 346 people.

The end of the 20-month flight ban gives Boeing the chance to start handing over the roughly 450 Max jetliners it has produced but has been unable to deliver to customers after regulators ordered airlines to stop flying them in March 2019.

Boeing shares were up 5.4% after the FAA ungrounded the jets.

Boeing has a backlog of more than 3,000 other Boeing 737 Max planes, a number that has declined as the lengthy grounding coupled with the coronavirus pandemic prompted customers to call off hundreds of orders.

Regulators grounded the Max in March 2019 after the second of two nearly-new 737 Max planes crashed within five months of one another. The crashes prompted a lengthy safety review that was met with numerous delays, driving up losses and costs for Boeing.

For months after the crashes, Boeing and the FAA faced criticism from lawmakers and some air safety experts about the plane’s design and certification. Tensions over the grounding between Boeing and the FAA cost the former CEO his job.

Investigations into the crashes and the Max’s development centered around an automated flight control system that was meant to prevent the aircraft from stalling. Pilots on both flights that crashed — Lion Air Flight 610 on Oct. 29, 2018, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019 — struggled against the system after it was activated because of faulty sensor data.

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, July 1, 2019.
Lindsey Wasson | Reuters

Pilots weren’t informed about the system and mentions of it had been removed from pilot manuals when they were delivered to airlines. A House investigation in September found regulatory, design and management problems as the jets were being developed led to the “preventable death” of everyone on board.

Boeing has made the system less aggressive and added more redundancies, among other changes over the past two years.

Airlines still have to train pilots and remove aircraft from storage, if they had 737 Maxes in their fleets at the time of the grounding.

American Airlines is set to be the first U.S. airline to return the aircraft to commercial service at the end of December. United Airlines and Southwest Airlines executives have said they expect the planes to return to their schedules at some point next year.

This is breaking news. Check back for updates.

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