Airlines To Carefully Meter 737 MAX Back Into their Fleets

Airlines To Carefully Meter 737 MAX Back Into their Fleets.

The Boeing 737 MAX grounding has strained operations and finances this year at several North American airlines, but executives caution the jetliner needs to be reintroduced to fleets in a gradual, coordinated way once authorities certify it to fly so they have time to build passenger bookings and conduct their own tests.

A controlled rollout presumably also would give cargo divisions better ability to fill belly space with shipments from freight forwarders, although the narrow-body planes like the MAX only carry a modest amount of freight on domestic flights, as an earlier FreightWaves analysis showed.

Once the Federal Aviation Administration lifts the grounding, Boeing Co (NYSE: BA) should give customers plenty of notice about the planned cadence for producing new aircraft and delivering parked ones, Andrew Nocella, United Airlines chief commercial officer, said this week at the Cowen & Co. transportation investor conference in Boston.

“We’ve told them that there’s nothing that physically prevents us from taking as many aircraft as they can deliver to us. They’re going to be the constraint on that. However, what we’ve also said is they can’t call us today and say, ‘Hey, there’s an aircraft for you tomorrow,’ because it takes us time to work it back in the schedule to then be able to sell tickets on it,” he said.

Six to nine months of lead time is ideal, he added, “but 60 days would be the absolute minimum that we would want to do.”

United had 14 Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in service when the FAA grounded the fleet in mid-March following two overseas crashes that killed 346 people. Boeing is finalizing software fixes for its flight control system that is blamed for automatically overcorrecting the pitch during climbing and causing the accidents. Nocella said 16 more planes are scheduled for delivery by the end of the year.

A week ago, United pulled the MAX out of its schedules through Dec. 19 and has begun canceling thousands of flights.

The FAA has not publicly said when it plans to sign off on the so-called MCAS system, but Southwest Airlines financial chief Tammy Romo said she expects the MAX to be cleared for service by early-to-mid November.

The flight cancellations at United and other airlines will continue to hurt business, especially during the busy holiday travel season. Loss of traffic at other airlines because of the MAX and other problems was Delta Air Lines’ gain. But the extra passenger volume raised operating costs and stressed Delta’s workforce, with planes running load factors near 90%.

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