American Airlines announced Sunday that it will extend flight cancellations through Sept. 3 for Boeing’s embattled 737 Max, a new passenger jet that has been out of commission for almost three months after its flight-control software played a role in two deadly crashes.
The cancellations will affect approximately 115 flights per day, the airline said.
The move suggests airlines are planning for a 737 Max reentry that will take longer than expected. The three U.S. airlines that operate Max jets ― American, Southwest and United ― have been awaiting a planned software update and pilot-training regimen designed to make the plane safe to fly.
A Federal Aviation Administration directive issued in March initially called for the software fix to be finished “no later than April,” but the schedule slipped after an additional software issue was found and the FAA asked for further details.
In its announcement Sunday, American Airlines said it is “pleased with progress to date” on recertifying the plane and said it has been in frequent contact with the FAA, the Transportation Department and the National Transportation Safety Board.
“American Airlines remains confident that impending software updates to the Boeing 737 Max, along with the new training elements Boeing is developing in coordination with our union partners, will lead to recertification of the aircraft soon,” the airline’s statement reads. “By extending the cancellations, our customers and team members can more reliably plan their upcoming travel on American.”
A Boeing statement said the company is working closely with its airline customers to ensure a smooth reentry into service.
“We continue to work with global regulators to provide them the information they need to certify the 737 Max update and related training and education material and safely return the fleet to service,” a Boeing spokesman said in an emailed statement.
The 737 Max was first introduced in May 2017. It was designed to be a newer, better version of Boeing’s 737, a long-trusted airplane model that is the best-selling jet in the company’s history.
Rather than go through the costly process of designing and recertifying an entirely new jet, Boeing wanted to make the Max operate as similarly as possible to earlier 737 models.
To make the plane more fuel-efficient, Boeing included new engines that had to be positioned differently on the jet’s wings. But doing so threatened to change the jet’s handling qualities, so Boeing added a new flight control system called the Maneuvering Characteristic Augmentation System ― known as MCAS ― to adjust the direction of the plane’s nose in certain situations.
Problems arose when MCAS relied on faulty data from the plane’s external sensors, pushing the plane’s nose downward.
A misfiring MCAS system combined with faulty sensors became a deadly combination in two crashes that together killed 346 people ― the first on Oct. 31 in Indonesia and the second on March 10 in Ethiopia. The FAA grounded all Max 8 and Max 9 jets a few days after the second crash.
Even when the FAA gives the Max its stamp of approval, Boeing could still face additional hurdles before the situation returns to normal. Regulators in Europe, China and elsewhere will have to conduct their own reviews of the plane, and they may have different standards than the FAA. Even then, Boeing will have to convince the flying public that its jets are reliable following one of the biggest safety crises in the company’s history.
Image: An American Airlines Boeing 737 MAX 8 taxis out for departure from Miami International Airport in February 2019.