How Southwest Airlines Plans to Get the 737 Max Back in the Sky

Worsening tensions between Boeing Co. and the Federal Aviation Administration threaten new delays in the return of the 737 Max. But even after regulators sign off, airlines will still have weeks of work before passengers fly on the beleaguered plane.

Southwest Airlines Co. is anticipating a month or more of preparations after the Max wins approval to fly from the FAA. With speculation mounting that Boeing won’t be able to complete the regulatory process until February, Southwest is starting to doubt whether it can make good on its plan to restore the Max to its flight schedule in early March.

The airline’s management of the Max return will be closely watched because it’s the largest operator of the jet, which has been grounded for nine months after two deadly crashes. Once regulators re-certify it, Southwest will start readying the planes for service — and trying to persuade anxious customers to fly on it.

The carrier had 34 planes when they were ordered parked, and had expected to receive 41 more this year. That means it will have at least 75 planes to absorb into its fleet when the grounding is lifted.

In an interview Thursday at Bloomberg headquarters in New York, Chief Executive Officer Gary Kelly and Southwest Chief Operating Officer Mike Van de Ven outlined how they see the 30- to 40-day process unfolding:

  • Once the grounding order is lifted by U.S. regulators, Southwest will get details on the updates required to flight-system software and will make those changes. It will also learn of new pilot-training requirements and incorporate those into flight manuals — changes that must be approved by the FAA.
  • Southwest has agreed with its pilots union to allow 30 days for training on the updated software, and will wait until all of its 9,700 pilots are trained before flying the Max again.
  • The Dallas-based airline will take its 34 Max planes out of storage in Victorville, California, perform needed maintenance and get them ready to resume flights, a process that will include installing the new software. The company will also have to purchase 41 aircraft built by Boeing but not yet delivered, and prepare them to enter service. Each jet must undergo FAA-approved inspections before being cleared to carry passengers.
  • Southwest will make several “readiness” flights before putting paying customers on a Max. Passengers on those excursions will include company executives, federal regulators and journalists. The airline believes it can fold five to 10 Max aircraft a week into its fleet, and wants to have about 30 ready to go before making the first commercial flight.
  • Executives have worked with its pilots, regulators and Boeing on a communications and marketing effort to address safety concerns among passengers and Southwest’s own employees. The airline’s research shows the “vast majority” of customers will fly the Max as soon as it returns, even though about 10% will avoid the jet at first. Southwest will use social media. digital communication and television ads. “We’re not going to be selling safety,” said Tom Nealon, the company’s president. “We’re going to be selling Southwest competence.”

Of course, for any of that to happen, government safety officials must first lift the flying ban.

— With assistance by Alan Levin

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