Southwest CEO remains confident in Boeing 737 MAX

Dec 12, 2019

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Southwest Airlines said the Boeing 737 MAX grounding has delayed its network expansion plans, but the airline remains confident in the plane’s long-term safety and reliability.

“We think it’s the best 175-seat airplane in the world,” Gary Kelly, Southwest’s CEO said at a Wings Club luncheon in New York on December 12th. He added the airline is “very pleased” with the 737 MAX, and looks forward to having as many as 115 of the aircraft in Southwest’s fleet by the end of 2020.

Kelly acknowledged, though, that the worldwide 737 MAX grounding has had some negative effects on Southwest’s business plans this year.

“We’re behind in our expansion,” he said. In 2020, the airline plans to boost service in Denver, Houston and Baltimore. He also said he’s pleased that the airline initiated Hawaii service before the full effects of the 737 MAX grounding had taken hold, and noted that the airline had always planned to use 737-800s, so its service to the American tropics was not affected by the MAX issues.

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He added that it seems likely that the MAX return to service schedule could be revised again.

“We’re going to have to look again to see what we need to do,” Kelly said.

Southwest 737 MAX aircraft are stored in Victorville, California. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Southwest 737 MAX aircraft are stored in Victorville, California. (Photo by MARK RALSTON/AFP/Getty Images.)

American Airlines announced Thursday that the MAX would remain off its schedule until April 7. For now, both Southwest and United plan to return their MAXes to service in March.

When the MAX does return to service for Southwest, Kelly said customers will be able to opt to fly on different aircraft, but he expects that most passengers will feel comfortable with the plane in a matter of months after it’s flying again.

“People want to travel,” Kelly said. In surveys Southwest has conducted with its customers, the airline hasn’t seen a significant number of passengers who would not feel comfortable flying on the plane. “Southwest has a lot of good will with people,” Kelly said, adding that so long as the airline is open and honest with its customers about their plans for the plane’s return to service, he’s confident that it won’t be a major issue from the passenger perspective.

“You can’t communicate too much in an environment like this,” he said.

The 737 MAX fleet has been grounded around the world since March after two fatal crashes left 346 people dead, and is likely to remain out of the skies into 2020. An automated flight control system is suspected of contributing to both disasters, and Boeing has been working with regulators and airlines to address the issue and update the software involved.

Kelly said Southwest pilots who have had the opportunity to test the updates in simulators have had “superb” experiences with the way the aircraft handles now.

Featured photo by Mark Ralston/Getty Images.

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