On Dec. 29, the Boeing 737 Max will finally return to passenger service, making one roundtrip for American between Miami and New York LaGuardia.
In the following several months, United, Alaska and Southwest will either resume or begin Max operations, as well.
The notion of flying on what has become the world's most infamous commercial aircraft model will certainly cause consternation for some travelers. And it will create a decision point for travel advisors. Will they warn clients before making a booking on a Max flight? And just what will they tell a client who asks whether the Max is safe?
Agents will ultimately cater responsively to the comfort level of each individual client. But with that disclaimer out of the way, I believe that they and the general public have reason to be confident in the revamped Max. Delivering that message to their clients will soothe nerves and be good for the airlines and the greater travel industry, both of which are already suffering from a crisis of consumer safety confidence as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Over the 20 months that the Max has been grounded, the aircraft, Boeing and the FAA have each been subjected to intense scrutiny, and with good reason.
A Travel Weekly reporter was among the 90 journalists and American employees to fly on an American 737 Max, roundtrip between Dallas-Fort Worth and Tulsa.
Investigations into the two Boeing Max crashes that led to the March 2019 grounding of the plane determined that each crash was caused by a faulty sensor. In both cases, the sensor transmitted erroneous information to the plane's automated flight control system, causing the aircraft to nosedive.
Related investigations showed a flawed culture at Boeing and an overly cozy relationship between Boeing and the FAA regulators who were supposed to be watching over the aerospace giant. Boeing, the House Transportation Committee found in September after an 18-month investigation, jeopardized the safety of the flying public by cutting costs and rushing Max production. The company also had a culture of concealment, withholding crucial information from the FAA, its airline customers and pilots.
Meanwhile, so lax was the FAA's certification oversight that in some cases agency management overruled the determination of its technical experts at the behest of Boeing, according to the House committee.
While these findings are hardly cause for comfort, their revelation should be. In the early days of the Max grounding, many in the aviation industry expected the aircraft to be back in the skies by that summer. Instead, the grounding lingered for these 20 months, a timespan during which safety eventually bested Boeing's short-term bottom line as the prevailing concern among politicians, regulators and, it appears, even Boeing itself. During the course of the grounding, Boeing realigned the company, bringing its engineering staff together into a single safety unit while also pushing out former CEO Dennis Muilenberg.
The revelations also led to increased FAA scrutiny ahead of the Nov. 18 lifting of the grounding order. Notably, pilots will now be required to undergo simulator training for the Max's automated flight control system, a measure that Boeing had resisted until last January.
In addition, the FAA will inspect each individual Max plane before it is cleared to fly, a measure designed to show that genuine oversight barriers are being built between it and Boeing.
It's fashionable in the U.S. these days to discard faith in government and governmental institutions. The story of how the Max came to be certified despite fatal failings feeds such sentiment.
But the fact is that upon its relaunch the Max will likely be the most carefully reviewed plane in the sky. That's the narrative concerned travelers should hear.