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Regular travelers begin flying on the Boeing 737 Max for the first time in nearly 21-months on Wednesday — at least in Brazil.
São Paulo-based Gol became the first global airline to return the beleaguered Max to passenger service on a flight between its São Paulo Guarulhos hub and Porto Alegre on Wednesday morning. The move comes two weeks after Brazil’s aviation regulator ANAC lifted its grounding order for the Max, and three weeks after the U.S. did the same.
While a Gol spokesperson declined to name initial routes, Cirium schedules show the carrier flying the 737 Max 8 on select flights between São Paulo and Brasilia, Florianopolis, Goiania, Natal, Porto Alegre, Rio de Janeiro Galeão and Salvador in Brazil by December 18.
Brazil and other countries grounded the MAX in March 2019 after the second of two fatal crashes that took the lives of 346 people. Faults in the plane’s flight control system played a key role in both crashes — issues that regulators’ mandated Boeing fix as part of the re-certification process.
The return of the Max at Gol beats American Airlines by just several weeks. The Fort Worth, Texas-based U.S. carrier will resume flying the 737 Max 8 on flights between Miami and New York LaGuardia on December 29. The jet will begin serving more airports, including Boston Logan and Washington Reagan National, in January.
The move likely has nothing to do with “first back” bragging rights: December is the beginning of Brazil’s peak travel season and Gol needs every plane in its fleet. The airline is due to fly roughly 65 percent of its 2019 capacity — a 31 percent increase over November — and more than three-quarters of its 127 aircraft-strong fleet this month, according to its latest investor presentation.
“This is their July,” said Raymond James airline analyst Savanthi Syth in an interview. “If you have a good aircraft available … you want to get that airplane in the air.”
The big question now is how flyers in Brazil will react to the return of the MAX. In the U.S., a survey by Southwest Airlines found that as many as a quarter of travelers are uncomfortable flying on the jet. Gol appears to be banking on the rigorous review global regulators have put the MAX through and the added training for its pilots to woo passengers back to the jet.
“Our first priority is always the safety of our customers,” said Celso Ferrer, vice president of operations at Gol, in a statement. “Over the past 20 months, we have watched the most comprehensive safety review in the history of commercial aviation unfold … Consequently, following the new certification of the Boeing 737 Max by the FAA and ANAC, we are fully confident in the Max’s return to service.”
Both regulators require Boeing and airlines to install software updates on the Max to avoid the errors that caused the fatal crashes of Maxes at Ethiopian Airlines and Lion Air. In addition, they require pilots to receive additional training, including time in flight simulators.
Gol touts the training of 140 pilots on Max simulators in the U.S., in addition to technical modifications to the aircraft among its preparations for the re-introduction of the planes.
Historically, technical fixes and training alone have not proven enough to reinstall confidence once a jet’s reputation is tarnished. After the McDonnell Douglas DC-10 was grounded for 37 days in 1979, airlines and the planemaker initially eschewed a marketing campaign aimed at rehabilitating the tri-jet’s brand. That proved something of a misstep as competitors were able to use the fact that they did not fly the DC-10 as a marketing edge and new orders for the passenger-version of the jet fell off, according to recent analysis by The Air Current.
The DC-10 and 737 Max parallels are not perfect. The former already faced competition from the then-new Airbus A300 and Boeing 767 — new generation twin-jets that offered airlines lower costs — when it was grounded whereas the latter is Boeing’s latest, most efficient variant of its bread-and-butter 737 family.
Airline’s are already scrambling for the efficiency gains promised by the Max. Gol touts the MAX as critical to its cost reduction plans citing, among other reasons, 15 percent better fuel efficiency than its 737-800 jets.
On Monday, Gol CEO Paulo Kakinoff called the Max “one of the most efficient aircraft in aviation history.”
Alaska Airlines cited the efficiency of the Max in its recent deal with Air Lease for 13 737 Max 9s. The aircraft boast 20 percent better fuel efficiency, as well as lower carbon emissions, than the 10 Airbus A320s they will replace, according to the Seattle-based airline.
And while there is as yet no official public marketing campaign for the Max, American took media up in one of its 737 Max 8s on a demonstration flight earlier in December. The flight followed an Instagram post by the carrier’s CEO Doug Parker of his own flight on the aircraft.
“When American Airlines pilots – who are the best in the business – are comfortable and confident in flying the Max, so am I,” he said.
Boeing has no official plans to change the name of the Max. However, recent statements have suggested that the “MAX” moniker may only be used when referring to the family of jets — i.e., the 737 Max. A more abbreviated numerical title may become the norm for individual models, for example the 737 Max 8 becomes the 737-8.
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Return to service
American and Gol are the only airlines scheduled to resume Max passenger flights in December. Copa Airlines in Panama may also resume flying its 737 Max 9s during the month but has yet to set a specific date, said Syth.
Alaska, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines are all due to resume flights with the jets early in 2021. Alaska plans to introduce it in March, Southwest in the “second quarter” and United in the first quarter.
To date, regulators outside Brazil and the U.S. have held off re-certifying the MAX leaving the return of the jet at airlines elsewhere in the world up in the air. Canadian and European officials have indicated they could re-certify the plane early in 2021. This would allow carriers like Air Canada, Ryanair and WestJet to resume flights shortly thereafter.
That delay does not appear to have dampened interest in the plane. On December 3, Ryanair placed the first post-grounding order for the MAX with a commitment for 75 more planes bringing its total orders to 210 jets.
And reports suggest more airlines are looking at deals for the Max. Alaska is said to be in talks for more planes to accelerate the retirement of its A320 fleet and Southwest interested in some “white tails” — or assembled aircraft that no longer have a buyer.
Any deal is a needed shot in the arm for Boeing. The planemaker had lost more than 700 orders for the Max as of the end of November; the result of the double-whammy of both the grounding and pandemic that set air travel demand back decades.