American Airlines becomes first US carrier to put passengers back on the 737 MAX

Dec 29, 2020

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American Airlines became the first U.S. carrier to put the Boeing 737 MAX into regular service Tuesday, flying paying passengers on the jet for the first time since a nearly two-year grounding after two fatal crashes that took 346 lives.

American Flight 718, operated by a two-year-old 737 MAX 8 registered N314RH, departed  Miami (MIA) for New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA) at about 10:30 a.m. ET, marking the MAX’s first regularly scheduled domestic flight in more than 21 months.

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About 100 paying passengers lined up at Gate D50 in Miami to board the 172-seat New York-bound MAX. The return service to Miami was sold out in both first class and coach as of Tuesday morning.

American’s MAX relaunch began with remarks from airline president Robert Isom, who also flew on the first flight in an extra-legroom coach aisle seat.

Pre-flight media briefing (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

“We’re pleased as a company to be part of the 737 MAX recertification process… and we’re confident that the aircraft is ready to go,” Isom said at the briefing. 

He then addressed the question on everyone’s mind: How will American market the MAX — and are passengers booking away from it?

“As we take a look at our loads, there’s really nothing to distinguish our MAX flights from the rest of our operation. But at American, we’re going to be really transparent about the aircraft you’re flying on,” Isom said.

Though there were no callouts about the MAX during check-in, the gate agent did announce that “you are boarding a flight operated by a 737 MAX.” There were no offers to rebook on another flight, despite the carrier’s policy allowing customers to do so.

Boarding began on time. One passenger on the flight, Tom Seberger — who said he was a retired aviation mechanic — remarked that “to me, it means that the aircraft has probably had one of the most thorough recertifications of any aircraft — and it’s safe to fly.”

Boarding the first American MAX flight (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Though the flight wasn’t sold out, about 25 non-revenue passengers — a mix of airline employees and family members — joined Flight 718 at the last minute. These passengers were ready to cheer the relaunch of the MAX, excitedly mingling with colleagues about the return to service. They clapped as Capt. Sean Roskey announced, “our flight to New York’s LaGuardia Airport will be flown on a Boeing 737 MAX.”

Tuesday’s flight represents a big step forward for the jet, which was introduced in 2017. It quickly became a bestseller for Boeing but was grounded worldwide last spring after the crash of a Lion Air 737 MAX 8 in late 2018 and an Ethiopian Airlines 737 MAX 8 in March 2019.

Following a prolonged safety review that culminated in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) ungrounding the jet on Nov. 18, Boeing, as well as MAX operators, have been hard at work to get the jets back in the sky.

American president Robert Isom talking to CBS’ Peter Greenberg (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

The return-to-service process starts on the ground with a four-hour software update to the plane’s automated flight control system, dubbed the “MCAS” or maneuvering characteristics augmentation system.

Additionally, all pilots must undergo a two-hour simulator-based training exercise that runs through all types of emergencies, including a stall, runaway trim, go-around, incorrect angle-of-attack reading and more.

Capt. Chris Hurrell, the 737 fleet captain for American Airlines, recently told TPG he’s “very confident that these changes address all the issues that occurred during the two accidents.”

Some of the more excited aviation enthusiasts boarding Tuesday’s flight (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

Putting the MAX back on the schedule within the U.S. is a much-needed boost for Boeing.

More: Southwest has no plans to rebrand the Boeing 737 MAX

The Chicago-based planemaker has faced heavy criticism following the two fatal MAX crashes. Both were blamed on largely faulty flight-control software related to the plane’s angle-of-attack sensors — something that Boeing “deliberately misled” about, pilots at Southwest Airlines alleged in an October 2019 lawsuit. Boeing also faced claims that it misled regulators about changes to the system.

Families of the victims of one of the 737 MAX crashes also remain among the critics of the plane and the effort to return it to service. The law firm representing those family members issued a new statement ahead of Tuesday’s flight in which they questioned the “rush” to get the plane back in the air.

Sill, the FAA’s November re-certification of the MAX has cleared the way for American and others to put the plane back into service.

American has been on an ambitious six-week journey to get the MAX flying again, with executives citing the plane’s efficiency as a key reason to bring it back now, despite the current pandemic-related downturn in demand.

Earlier this month, the carrier operated a demo flight for media, as well as five employee-only “flights-to-nowhere” and ground-based customer tours all aimed to “restore confidence in the jet.”

With 588 MAX-operated flights scheduled for January 2021, American plans to ease the plane back into service over the coming weeks — starting with a slew of routes from its Miami hub. That figure more than triples in February, with nearly 2% of all 100,980 American flights slated to be operated by a MAX, according to Cirium schedules.

More: Behind-the-scenes of American’s 737 MAX demo flight

Despite American’s eagerness to get the MAX flying again, Brazil-based GOL Airlines became the first carrier worldwide to restart passenger flights with the plane on Dec. 9. Aeromexico also returned its MAX to service earlier this month.

As for the other U.S. carriers, Alaska, Southwest and United all plan to restart MAX flights in early 2021.

Seattle-based Alaska recently announced a restructured aircraft order, which includes 68 new MAX 9s to be delivered by 2024 — a big win for Boeing as it tries to convince airlines to buy its troubled jet. Alaska plans its first MAX flight on March 1 from its Los Angeles and Seattle hubs, according to Cirium schedules.

American’s 737 MAX 8 (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

United Airlines is gearing up for a mid-February restart, with multiple MAX flights scheduled on Feb. 11 to and from its Houston Intercontinental hub.

Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, hasn’t yet committed to a MAX restart date. The Dallas-based carrier has recently started employee-only, confidence-boosting flights.

Gary Kelly, the carrier’s CEO, recently remarked on Twitter that “my flight today only reaffirmed my supreme confidence in the airworthiness of the MAX.”

More: How to tell if you’re booked on a 737 MAX

While it remains to be seen how passengers will react to flying a MAX, all major carriers — including American — have reiterated that they won’t force anyone to fly on the plane. In a recent Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, 57% of respondents stated that they’d avoid flying on the MAX after being briefed about the aircraft’s safety issues.

“No one has to go on the MAX if they don’t want to, but if you want to, it’s there,” David Seymour, American’s chief operating officer said at the MAX media event on Dec. 2.

Customers booked on a MAX can seek alternate flights or future travel credit, all at no additional cost.

For now, American will likely have to convince passengers one flight at a time. On Tuesday, no passengers opted to rebook on a different flight to New York.

Before boarding, however, one flyer underscored the challenge facing American and other carriers returning the MAX to service.

“Oh gosh, this is bad news,” he said after learning that Tuesday was the first revenue flight on the MAX.

And so begins the industry’s effort to rebuild the tarnished reputation of the MAX.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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