Now that the FAA has given the nod to unground the troubled Boeing 737 Max, the U.S. airframer is steadfast not to lose any time in bringing back the aircraft to the skies and kickstarting a smooth return to delivery. According to Boeing’s internal planning, the process of removing a Max jet from storage to the handover to the customer will take just over two weeks on average.
The first three days will focus on storage removal and airplane reactivation, including the removal of environmental protection equipment and de-preservation of engines and systems. Days four to 10 will involve software updates and flight preparations, engine runs and flight control checks, and flight and aircraft operational checks by the airframer’s teams. Days 11 to 16 will see the completion of the “airplane ticketing” (the certification of the airworthiness preparation and issuance once the airplane passes all tests and the FAA accepts the results), the transfer of the aircraft's title deeds to the customer, and the preparation of the aircraft for the ferry flight to its home base. This five-day phase includes the customary customer walk-through during which the customer acceptance team makes its final on-ground quality review followed by the customer validation flight to check all aircraft systems during flight and the aircraft’s behavior in the whole flight envelope.
The OEM has also set up a dedicated 24/7 Max support operations center, with real-time fleet monitoring, aimed at providing a rapid issue resolution. It also has expanded the onsite specialized support staff to 154 spread out over five regions.
Some 450 newly manufactured 737 Max jets are at its storage sites across the U.S., while another 387 of the narrowbodies were in service with 59 airlines worldwide when authorities ordered the grounding. Boeing in March resumed production of the Max, albeit at very low rates on just one production line.
Boeing’s Seattle delivery center will turn over all 737 Maxes to customers, while its sites at Moses Lake, Washington; San Antonio, Texas; and Victorville, California will serve as feeder lines. Boeing plans to deliver a mix from factory and storage, though it will prioritize the stored inventory. The airframer expects delivery of about half of the aircraft now in storage by the end of next year and the majority of the remaining Maxes by the end of 2022. During the company’s third-quarter earnings call on October 28, CEO Dave Calhoun admitted some of the stored airplanes will need to be remarketed and possibly reconfigured for a new customer at the end of the delivery cycle. “All of the early deliveries of 737s will be, of course, to the customers who are on contract and where we will not have to do mods, etcetera,” he said. “And then as we begin to think about the longer or the end of that stream of inventoried airplanes which do not yet have homes, we think we're going to be able to do, within cycle times, all of the reconfigurations that are going to be required.”
Global regulatory approval timelines will drive the baseline delivery plan, meaning that airlines in the U.S. and Europe will get their Max jets first. The head of EASA, Patrick Ky, last month told members of the European Parliament’s Transport Committee that the Cologne-based agency is “fully confident” that the corrections in the design, the improvement of the crew procedures, and the extension of the crew training program will ensure a safe return to service of the aircraft. He foresaw a resumption of Max operations at the end of this year or the beginning of next year. Conversely, the Civil Aviation Administration of China has not yet laid out a timeline for the return of the model and Calhoun confirmed during the earnings call that Boeing had pushed out the Chinese airplanes for later delivery as part of a “de-risking” of its delivery stream on the inventoried airplanes, notwithstanding China’s strong post-Covid recovery of domestic traffic. The airframer has deployed a team in the field with the CAAC for probably a better part of two months, said Calhoun. “They are working through that process just like the FAA and the EASA did in Europe,” he explained. “And it's been going quite well and productively, and all the technical people are lined up, etcetera. So, I'm confident that that process will happen, and then ultimately, we can get back to deliveries.”
Authorities worldwide grounded the 737 Max 8 and Max 9 in March 2019 after two crashes in five months killed 346 passengers and flight crew.