Pilots at Southwest Airlines Co., the largest operator of the beleaguered Boeing Co. 737 Max, warned that the grounded plane may not resume commercial flights until as late as March.

The carrier’s internal plans call for the Max to carry its first paying customers 45 to 60 days after U.S. regulators lift a no-fly order on the plane, Greg Bowen, training and standards committee chairman at the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, said Monday. Union President Jon Weaks said his “best guess” for the Max’s resumption of commercial service is January at the earliest and March at the latest.

Southwest expects regulators will certify the grounded jet to resume flights before Thanksgiving in the U.S., the airline’s chief financial officer said on Sept. 4. Boeing, which hasn’t yet filed its final package of changes to the Federal Aviation Administration for approval, has said it is targeting lifting the grounding early in the fourth quarter.

The review of new Max software by the FAA and testing by pilots “are at least 30 days away, if not further,” Bowen said at a conference in Plano, Texas, for independent pilot unions. Those steps are needed before the flying ban is lifted.

The Max has been grounded worldwide since March, after two crashes killed a total of 346 people within five months.

“We are waiting on a return-to-service timeline from Boeing and the FAA before solidifying plans and logistics for putting the Max back into the air,” Southwest said in a statement. “We are continuing our work to evaluate options for introducing the Max back into our schedule.”

The carrier confirmed that re-introducing the jet should take about 45 days after the flight ban is lifted.

Refresher Courses

The Dallas-based airline has given all of its pilots 60 days from Sept. 1 to complete a Max refresher course designed by the company, and also wants its aviators to complete any training required by the FAA before it resumes flights, the union said. Southwest only flies the Boeing 737, including an earlier model known as the NG, or next generation.

“The company recognizes there are still a significant amount of pilots that haven’t even flown the Max,” said Matthew Cain, a Southwest captain who chairs the union’s safety committee. By requiring all aviators to be trained to fly the Max, the airline hopes to avoid any discomfort among nervous passengers when substitute pilots have to be used, he said.

The union estimated it would take 200 man hours of work to get Southwest’s 34 grounded Max planes ready to fly again, while the airline put the number at “an average of 120 hours plus per aircraft.” The carrier will first fly new Max planes that Boeing has built during the grounding, before operating the 34 stored by the airline in Arizona, SWAPA said.

–With assistance from Justin Bachman.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

This article was written by Mary Schlangenstein from Bloomberg and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

Photo Credit: Southwest Airlines is that largest Boeing 737 Max operator in the U.S. Bloomberg