A top American Airlines executive confirmed this week that the airline plans to get its mothballed Boeing 737 MAX fleet back into the air starting March 5, but on a phased-in schedule to help restore public confidence in the troubled jet.
Speaking at the Wings Club in New York, American President Robert Isom said that the prolonged grounding had seriously impacted its business in 2019.
“We built an airline that should be 40 aircraft larger at this time,” he said.
The airline had 24 MAX jets in its fleet as of last March, when the plane was grounded by governments around the world following the second of two fatal crashes. Isom noted that the airline had been scheduled to take delivery another 16 MAX aircraft by the end of this year.
“Each one of those plane should be doing four or five flights a day,” he said, adding that the new aircraft were replacements for aging MD-80 planes, also known as the “Super 80”, which had to be retired on schedule. “The damages are real; the revenues didn’t come in and costs have accumulated.”
But Isom emphasized that the plane wouldn’t be returned to service until the aviation industry is fully confident that they’re safe. He mentioned he’s met with the new chief of the Federal Aviation Administration, former Delta executive Stephen Dickson, “and he’s made it clear that safety has no time limit.” The FAA is widely expected to recertify the MAX sometime in the next month to six weeks.
Isom said that in the weeks leading up to the restoration of scheduled service, American will fly the jets in non-revenue service, carrying employees and other interested parties. Before that, the planes will need maintenance and software upgrades, which were ordered after crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia. Pilots will also need to be trained on new protocols.
American will add MAX flights slowly, with five planes the first week, and four per week thereafter. Other airlines are also taking a cautious approach: Southwest, which has 34 MAX jets, the most of any airline, has already said it will take one to two months to get the jets flying again once the FAA gives the green light.
Meanwhile, Isom painted a bullish picture for 2020, projecting that capacity will be up by 5%, with much of the growth coming at its hubs in Dallas-Fort Worth and Charlotte. In all, the airline has invested more than $30 billion in 500 new aircraft.