On Tuesday, American Airlines became the first US airline to fly the Boeing 737 Max on route from Miami to New York, launching a new saga for the storied aircraft.
The 737 Max was once Boeing's bestselling commercial aircraft of all time, peaking at over 5,000 orders and a runaway success for its 79 operators. The Max made nearly 250,000 flights worldwide since it began flying passengers in May 2017. Then, the Max was grounded by the FAA in March 2019 following two ill-fated flights that crashed within five months of each other and took 346 lives. The aircraft hasn't flown passengers in the US since, until Tuesday.
After months of strenuous work to fix the quality control, cultural, and design flaws, Boeing has now readied the Max for passenger flights. American Airlines and other operators have also been working at warp speed to safely return the Max to flying. According to a statement from American Airlines, their tech operations team in Tulsa, Oklahoma, has put more than 64,000 hours of work into maintaining and upgrading the Max fleet over the past 20 months.
For years, I flew the Boeing 737 Max twice a month on one of American Airlines' most profitable and well-traveled milk runs between Miami and New York. Flying doesn't get much more routine than this route, and it became pedestrian for me as it did for many others.
Tuesday's flight was the first step in rebuilding the trust that Boeing and the Max once commanded among its airline customers and the traveling public. (AA conducted a demo flight December 3.)
Here's what it was like to be a passenger onboard the first Boeing 737 Max passenger flight.
American worked closely with Boeing on recertification and rewriting of new training protocols, with 1,400 of the company's pilots undergoing required simulator training before flying the Max.
Source: American Airlines President Robert Isom.
As of the end of this year, American will have reactivated all 24 of its delivered Max airplanes and taken delivery of 10 more, according to American President Robert Isom, who was also onboard the flight.
Though Gol Linhas Aereas of Brazil and Aeromexico were first to return the Max to service, American became the first US carrier to bring the aircraft back with flight 718 from Miami to New York.
American safely operated 18,962 Max flights from its launch in November 2017, but is restarting Max service with just one daily round trip per day - a far cry from the over 2,500 flights the Max operated for AA in its last month before the grounding.
American President Robert Isom said he's "confident" the Max is "ready to go." He and other AA employees and executives have been flying "flights to nowhere" designed to build confidence in the Max.
For all operators, the key is winning confidence, and customers haven't shunned the Max as expected. "We haven't seen any evidence that people are booking away from the Max," Isom said.
The airline is being very transparent when passengers are booking and flying on the Max. Currently, they're offering free rebooking or cancellations for AA travel credits, at no cost if passengers are uncomfortable flying on the Max.
American also pledges to alert passengers via text and app notification should there be an equipment swap for a Max.
When we were boarding, the gate agent announced we were flying the 737 Max aircraft.
No passengers I spoke to were uncomfortable flying the Max: "I trust the plane. It will be much better now that it's been revised," said Vilma Maldonado, who was traveling to see her daughter.
My seatmate, Eduardo Fernandes, flies every week. "It's been tested and looked at now more than any other plane in history, so I feel completely safe," he said.
As to be expected, others I spoke to had no idea what aircraft they were flying, nor did they care. "As long as it gets me there safely," one passenger said.
The boarding was routine, with only 96 passengers made up of press, bloggers, airline employees, and regular passengers. Other than the presence of the airline's president on the flight and news crews, nothing was unusual.
The light load had more to do with flying in a pandemic to a cold, quarantined New York than it did with the aircraft. The return leg back to sunny Miami is oversold.
Once onboard, the Max felt like any normal flight, as normal as flying can be during a pandemic.
Our Captain Sean Roskey, a 29-year veteran, thanked his American and Boeing colleagues for their hard work in bringing the Max back to service, adding, "I feel so confident about the plane that I bought my mother along for the trip."
Adding to the family affair, First Officer Moraima Maldonado had her mom aboard, too. The cabin erupted into applause with these sentimental announcements.
As we pushed back six minutes early, the ground crew stopped, took selfies, and waved us off. We taxied quickly to the runway. I could sense no real anticipation or celebration that normally accompanies special flights.
The Boeing 737 Max's quiet GE Leap engine take-off noise was interrupted by a short, "golf clap"-style burst of applause.
Boeing and its Max operators hope no news is good news. In other words, Boeing's longtime affectionate slogan became, "If it's Boring, I'm Going."
The flight itself was very smooth and uneventful, with only minor bumps into a gusty LaGuardia on the descent.
All stakeholders can hope is the Max's re-entry into service mirrors this first flight, especially as the relaunch kicks into high gear in the new year.
Brett Snyder of the Cranky Flier says all eyes will remain on the Max. "The media will make front page news of even the smallest incident like a medical diversion and plaster the headlines about it being a Max ... but as the airplane quietly performs well flight after flight, the concerns will melt away and people will forget about this," he said. "It just takes time."
"We're not going to build trust just sitting on the ground," said David Seymour, AA chief operations officer.