Regulators have cleared Boeing’s 737 MAX to fly again, 20 months after the fleet was grounded globally following two fatal crashes.
The decision was announced by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just months after a highly critical congressional report accused the watchdog itself of contributing to a “horrific culmination” of failures before the accidents.
It prompted anger from relatives of those who died.
The FAA said the plane’s airworthiness certificate would allow deliveries and US commercial flights to resume by the year’s end – subject to pilot training being agreed.
In Europe, regulators expect to launch a consultation on the aircraft’s return to the skies later this month, with a final “airworthiness” directive likely to come around the turn of the year – allowing flights to resume subject to training and maintenance.
The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority said: “It is the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) that will validate this certification across the EU member states, as well as currently for the UK.
“We continue to work closely with EASA on all issues relating to the B737 Max and any EASA decision on a return to service.”
The decision to withdraw the fleet from service followed the Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 disaster outside Addis Ababa in March last year.
All 157 on board were killed.
Six months earlier, a Lion Air 737 MAX, carrying 189 passengers and crew, crashed in Indonesia.
Relatives of those killed in the Ethiopian crash said in a statement that they felt “sheer disappointment and renewed grief” following the FAA’s decision to return the aircraft to service.
The grounding of the 737 MAX was in response to fears that flight control software, known as MCAS and designed to emulate handling of other Boeing aircraft, was responsible for both crashes.
MCAS – a system that pilots had been unaware of – became the focal point for a series of design changes demanded by the FAA which resulted in extensive testing both on the ground and in the air with the aim of restoring public trust.
The watchdog explained on Wednesday why the planes could not use US airspace just yet.
Its statement said: “The FAA must approve 737 MAX pilot training program revisions for each US airline operating the MAX and will retain its authority to issue airworthiness certificates and export certificates of airworthiness for all new 737 MAX aircraft manufactured since the FAA issued the grounding order.
“Furthermore, airlines that have parked their MAX aircraft must take required maintenance steps to prepare them to fly again.”
Of the US carriers with 737 MAX jets, American Airlines plans the first commercial flight with the jet since it was grounded on 29 December, followed by United Airlines in the first quarter of 2021 and Southwest Airlines in the second quarter.
Boeing shares, which have lost more than a third of their value in the year to date amid disruption to the travel industry from the coronavirus crisis, opened about 5% higher in New York after the widely-anticipated FAA statement.
But they later turned 3% lower as investors reflected on the challenges still facing the company amid the pandemic and questions about how quickly other regulators, particularly in China, will lift their flight bans.
Boeing’s chief executive David Calhoun said: “We will never forget the lives lost in the two tragic accidents that led to the decision to suspend operations
“These events and the lessons we have learned as a result have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity.”
The MAX crisis forced Boeing to halt not only deliveries of planes to customers but also production – with the fallout costing it more than $ 20bn in addition to its reputation as a safety first company.
The MAX is eagerly awaited by airlines as its design promises big reductions to fuel bills.
Ryanair is among customers hoping the addition of the MAX to its fleet will bolster profitability and is still negotiating compensation with Boeing.