Boeing: Expect 737 MAX flight ban to last into summer

Back half of a Boeing 737 MAX

Boeing on Tuesday confirmed growing suspicions that the return to service for the troubled 737 MAX will take much longer than recently expected, saying its best estimate is that safety regulators won’t begin to authorize the plane for commercial flights until midyear.

The aerospace giant said it is notifying customers and suppliers about the latest timetable for the certification process.

Boeing (NYSE: BA) stock fell 3.32%, down 10.75 points to $313.40.

The update factors in known schedule risks and “accounts for the rigorous scrutiny that regulatory authorities are rightly applying at every step of their review of the 737 MAX’s flight control system and the Joint Operations Evaluation Board process which determines pilot training requirements,” Boeing said in a statement.

“Returning the MAX safely to service is our number one priority, and we are confident that will happen. We acknowledge and regret the continued difficulties that the grounding of the 737 MAX has presented to our customers, our regulators, our suppliers and the flying public,” Boeing said.

The Federal Aviation Administration and other aviation authorities are reviewing adjustments Boeing made to its automated flight control system that was implicated in the crashes of a Lion Air plane in November 2018 and an Ethiopian Airlines plane four months later, which killed 346 people. Authorities also are studying whether pilots should be required to undergo simulator training, something that was not mandatory when the plane was originally certified because Boeing said the plane was simply a new version of the 737 family and not a new plane. Audits also have revealed potential wiring risks, which could add further production delays if corrections are necessary.

Boeing suspended production of the 737 MAX this month, 11 months after the plane was first grounded by the aviation authorities. Boeing officials provided optimistic estimates that fixes would be quickly approved and the plane certified within a few months and then by the end of 2019. Boeing fired CEO Dennis Muilenberg when it became clear that pressuring the FAA to speed up its review wasn’t working and partners felt misled. 

United, American and Southwest airlines have all removed the 737 MAX from their flight schedules through early March, but the new notice from Boeing is likely to change their plans again since it takes several months to get the plans mechanically ready, train pilots and secure passenger bookings.

It’s possible Boeing might not resume production of the plane until late this year, or 2021, given the hundreds of planes already in inventory that have to be prepared for delivery to customers.

Boeing plans to provide more details about the MAX when it releases fourth-quarter financial results Jan. 29.