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Southwest pilots see 737 Max return in February at earliest

Bloomberg

Southwest Airlines Co.’s pilots don’t expect to see Boeing Co.’s 737 Max resume flights until February “at least,” given work still to be done in a process fraught with safety concerns and politics.

That’s well beyond the Jan. 6 date the carrier has set for the grounded plane to be back in its schedule. But ending a global flying ban, enacted in March after two fatal crashes, probably will be delayed by the “many official processes and events” that must take place among regulators globally, Jon Weaks, head of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said Monday.

Southwest is the largest operator of the Max, and the union recently sued Boeing for at least $115 million in lost pay through the end of this year from the grounding — which according to the pilots has caused 30,000 flight cancellations at the Dallas-based carrier. The company has said that parking its 34 Max planes and not getting new ones scheduled for delivery this year has cut at least $225 million from operating income.

Investors and analysts have largely focused on the FAA’s certification of the safety of the Max as a catalyst for the plane’s return — and a rally in Boeing’s shares. But there will still be months more of work after that point before the planes are flying passengers, according to the time-line laid out by Weaks, a Southwest captain, in a message to union members.

First, Boeing has to finish its work and submit software to regulators that revamps MCAS, the system implicated in both crashes, as well as the flight control system architecture. There’s also the possibility that issues flagged in two recent reports by the National Transportation Safety Board and an international consortium of technical experts will prompt additional scrutiny.

A Boeing spokesman couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Regulators may hasten the jet’s return by working concurrently on different steps. But here’s how the process could play out, according to the Southwest pilots union, which represents aviators at the largest Max customer:

Late October: Airline pilots test the new software in flight simulators.

Early-to-mid November: FAA pilots test the redesigned flight controls in a specially outfitted 737 Max jet.

Late November: European authorities will submit their recommendations on pilot training to the FAA’s Flight Standards Board. While geopolitical tensions could flare, “we are hearing some indications that those issues are being resolved.”

Shortly thereafter, the FAA will publish its airworthiness directive spelling out changes in procedures needed to return the Max to the skies, followed by a 15-day public comment period

Once the directive becomes official, airlines such as Southwest will file their proposed changes to their FAA Certificate Management Office, or CMO, with a review that could last anywhere from one to three weeks. One twist: the CMO that oversees Southwest is looking for a permanent chief and may name the new leader around the same time.

Pilots will have 30 days to complete training once it is improved. Southwest plans to put all of its pilots through this course before resuming Max flights.

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