It's no surprise that 2020 has seen many travel industry changes, including cut airline routes and employees being furloughed or let go. Additionally, travel bans went into effect, and some countries and regions are still closed off for most nonessential travel. While airlines and hotels have found ways for travelers to keep their rewards while they stay home and travel has started to pick up a bit more, things are nowhere near what they were before the pandemic. 

With that said, it may come as a surprise that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has approved the use of the Boeing 737 Max for service (regulators in other countries are expected to make similar announcements soon but may have more requirements than the FAA). The Boeing 737 Max has been grounded worldwide since March 2019 after 346 people died in two fatal plane crashes. Before the grounding, these airplanes were averaging 8,600 weekly flights for 59 airlines around the globe.

Changes made by Boeing

What has changed that warranted approval from the FAA? For nearly two years, the FAA has been conducting a safety review to find the cause of the accidents and make the necessary changes to correct the issues. The 737 Max's automation system was determined to be at fault.

Boeing changed the flight control system to include two sensors on each side of the plane (previously, there was only one). Pilots will be alerted if the sensors aren't in agreement. If so, they can manually override the system. 

The FAA will require pilots to have computer-based training and flight training in a 737 Max simulator. Each airline has further various training requirements and testing procedures to ensure aircraft safety. 

How soon will we see the Boeing 737 Max?

It will be a few weeks before we see the Boeing 737 Max at airports. For one, many of these planes have been parked since March 2019 and will need to be prepared for flight. Furthermore, these planes will need to have their software upgraded. Pilots will also need to be trained accordingly.   

American Airlines has announced that they will begin a commercial flight on the Boeing 737 Max as early as December 29, 2020, with a roundtrip flight from Miami (MIA) to New York (LGA). Eventually, more services on the 737 Max planes will be added throughout January from the American Airlines hub in Miami. However, American Airlines has also stated that if a passenger does not want to fly on one of their 737 Max flights, they can be re-accommodated. 

Southwest Airlines only operates on Boeing 737's but isn't expecting to begin using the 737 Max until the second quarter of 2021. Similar to American Airlines, customers may request to change their flight, subject to availability. However, Southwest says it cannot guarantee that customers won't fly on a 737 Max 8 after changing flights as the aircraft is subject to change.

United Airlines expects to begin flying its 737 Max fleet in the first quarter of 2021. Customers will be able to see 737 Max flights when booking or be told ahead of time if they will be on a 737 Max flight. If they choose not to fly, United will rebook for free or refund the ticket (including on Basic Economy and international tickets). Unlike Southwest, United has stated that they will not make any last-minute changes that would put a customer on a 737 Max if they didn't want to be on one. 

Delta Air Lines currently doesn't have any 737 Max aircraft but has recently shown interest in buying some of the planes. Delta is now the only major U.S. airline that does not fly the 737 Max.  

Boeing has about 450 planes built but has yet to deliver due to the grounding order. Some of the buyers of those planes have since backed out of the sale. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has stalled and stopped many sales of new aircraft.

One airline has recently made a deal with Boeing. Alaska Airlines has acquired the 737 Max 9, with passenger service scheduled for as soon as March 2021 on the West Coast. Before booking, customers can check if they are flying on a 737 Max. There is no word on whether Alaska will allow for changes or refunds.  

Bottom line

The Boeing 737 Max will have been tested, monitored, and flown many times by the time it is ready for mass commercial use. Still, it will likely be some time before consumers rebuild confidence with the aircraft.