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Looking out over the wing on American’s 737 MAX (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

What It’s Like to Fly the 737 MAX Post-Grounding

On Tuesday, Boeing’s beleaguered 737 MAX took to the skies again in the U.S. with paying passengers onboard. American Airlines became the first U.S. operator to place the type back into revenue service with a flight from Miami International Airport to New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Other U.S. airlines are planning on launching 737 MAX flights in the coming months. United is planning on restarting MAX services on Feb. 11, 2021, while Alaska Airlines, which recently placed an order for an additional 23 aircraft, will resume services on March 1. Southwest Airlines hasn’t specified a restart date yet but is planning on reintroducing the aircraft sometime in the first half of 2021.

American is actively worked to reactivate several of its 737 MAX towards the tail-end of the grounding. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) lifted the grounding order earlier this month.

An American 737 MAX 8 jet performing a test flight. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Katie Bailey)

Currently, American has 1,400 pilots with the required training to operate the MAX with the company hoping all its 737 type-rated pilots will have the training in March. Twenty-four out of the 31 American MAX jets also have the required software upgrades, American Airlines President Robert Isom said during a press conference prior to the flight.

Why Fly the MAX?

American flight 718 was operated by N314RH — a two-year-old 737 MAX. The jet itself rested in both Roswell, N.M. and Tulsa, Okla. during the grounding period.

I opted to take this flight for two reasons. First, I had never been on a 737 MAX before the grounding, so this seemed like a unique opportunity. Second, I wanted to give others a bode of confidence in the jet. While it may indeed have a checkered past, global aviation regulators and carriers have worked tirelessly to return the aircraft to service. The MAX — among other types such as Airbus’ A320neo — will define the aviation market for years to come.

Prior to the flight, I was asked to appear on the Today Show and CBS This Morning to talk about why I opted to take the first revenue flight. Of course, the prevailing question was, “Are you apprehensive to fly the airplane?”

My short answer was and still is, “No, not at all.” For what its worth, I grew up around aviation and have studied it closely in a variety of settings. And I’ve seen first hand how seriously safety is taken from both the regulatory and operations sides of the house.

The FAA, along with other regulators, would not have green-lighted the aircraft’s return to service if it meant risking their respective safety cultures. It’s unfortunate, but much of aviation safety today is written in the blood of past accidents, and the MAX debacle is no exception.

N314Rw, the first MAX aircraft to operate commercially in the United States. (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

The Flight

Nevertheless, our flight left for New York around 10:30 a.m. On the morning of departure, there were approximately 75 people booked on the flight. Of course, airline employees wanted to partake, meaning there were plenty of non-revenue passengers on the flight as well. American Airlines President Robert Isom, along with several management pilots, sat in economy.

One could call the flight a family affair, as the captain’s wife and first officer’s mother were both onboard in addition to American’s chief pilot and his wife.

I was number one on the upgrade list thanks to being an Executive Platinum customer but opted out of the upgrade since the view was better in my economy seat: 8A.

Climbing out of Miami Airport (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Ryan Ewing)

A smooth takeoff roll and climb out of Miami meant it was time for the flight attendant to do their service. I watched as first class passengers received a choice of a sandwich or fruit and cheese plate in addition to beverages. In economy, no service was provided, which is not unusual for the current COVID-19 environment. The cabin crew was incredibly friendly overall.

While there were few “actual” passengers on the flight up to New York beyond news media and airline staff, the turnaround flight from LaGuardia back to Miami was booked almost to the brim.

In the interest of transparency, an American Airlines gate agent informed me that they are required to make announcements at the gate advising passengers that they are on a MAX. However, I never received any sort of advanced notice from American when I booked my ticket.

After nearly three hours enroute to LaGuardia, we flew the expressway visual approach touching down on runway 31. This approach made for some nice views of Manhattan.

Final Word

I would have no problem flying on a 737 MAX moving forward. On American’s aircraft, at least, there is little difference interior-wise between the MAX and updated 737-800s in the airline’s new Oasis configuration.

The only noticeable difference from a passenger perspective is how quiet the 737 MAX is compared to the 737-800. The LEAP engines make for a more comfortable ride in that regard.

Airlines, including American, are moving to put the 737 MAX back into service sooner rather than later, and I very much understand their reasoning. The MAX is a more efficient, longer-range variant of the ever-so-popular 737 family. Despite its past, the jet is ideal for the COVID-19 world where airlines are seeing unprecedented losses. The 737 MAX can fly further and more efficiently for less cost. For today’s airlines, cost-cutting is the name of the game.

In a recent Reuters poll, more than half of flyers said they would avoid the 737 MAX. Restoring confidence in the airplane is an important first step for operators, but a broader poll should examine how many passengers actively look at the aircraft type that they’re flying on.

Time will tell how the 737 MAX is viewed by the flying public, many of whom are already wary about COVID-19 outbreaks. American is already planning to expand the MAX’s footprint starting in 2021 to include destinations such as Washington, D.C., Boston, Mexico City and Phoenix, among others.

Ryan Ewing
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Ryan Ewing
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