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caption: A Boeing employee works on a 737 MAX on Monday, December 16, 2019, in Renton.
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A Boeing employee works on a 737 MAX on Monday, December 16, 2019, in Renton.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Boeing 737 MAX test flights this week? What that could mean for the jet's return

The Federal Aviation Administration has approved certification test flights for Boeing's 737 MAX, according to news reports.

It's been more than a year since the 737 Max was grounded after two deadly crashes blamed on a new flight control system.

Aviation analyst Richard Aboulafia spoke with KUOW’s Angela King about what the FAA decision means for getting the MAX back into service.

Angela King: So what exactly is the FAA saying yes to here?

Richard Aboulafia: They’re saying 'yes' to the start of flights that are designed to verify the new changes to the 737 MAX flight control system. And that's certainly good news. Because of course, that's exactly what's needed to get the plane back in service.

So do you know what's going to happen during the test flights and how long they're supposed to take?

The objective here is to basically test every possible contingency and make certain that the system responds exactly as planned. With the original system, of course, there were indeed issues that contributed to terrible tragedies. The objective is to remove any risk from the system by putting it through all possible contingencies for the newly designed system.

One concern has been how much control Boeing had over the original certification process for the MAX. So who's in control now?

You're gonna see the FAA play a much bigger role, and much less reliance upon Boeing's in-house capabilities. They're gonna want a much greater degree of oversight, however, and this is probably the one of the bigger risks to the plane's re-entry into service. Other foreign regulators particularly over in Europe, but certainly the Chinese, possibly the Canadians and several others are also going to want to do their own tests and provide their own degree of oversight and make certain that they too are in charge and that nothing is left purely in the hands of Boeing and its own verification.

Assuming all goes well, with these new test flights, when could we actually see airlines putting the MAX back into rotation?

That's the good news. You know, if the plane can actually get going this week, with test flights, it's quite conceivable that in the third quarter of this year, the aircraft could resume service, at least in the U.S. There's a very good chance that foreign regulators are going to want to put the plane through its paces too, and that, of course, is going to be delayed by the Covid-19 situation. And that could easily delay return to service in other markets, conceivably into next year.

So what's your take on things? Could the MAX be back in the air before the end of the year?

I think there's a very good chance. I think it's indeed the baseline scenario. There's very little that is needed to be done over the past couple of months related to the original problems. What you got, in addition to the Covid-19 related delays that have kept people from getting together in the same place at the same cockpit, just a decision to completely redo an awful lot of the aircraft's flight control systems and indeed, many other features of the aircraft too. So much has been done, this is going to be the most thoroughly-vetted jet in history, arguably. And this announcement today clearly shows that the home stretch is coming, assuming that there are no showstoppers that evidence themselves during the flight test.

Boeing is being pretty conservative about this. They told Spirit Aerosystems, their principal subcontractor, to build 125 fuselages, then moved that back to 70, something basically as a kind of hedge against through the risk. So in other words, they're not exactly pushing forward aggressively with this. They're being pretty conservative. That's also a welcome sign, even though of course, it's rather difficult for the companies involved in the supply chain for this aircraft.