China’s aviation regulator could be preparing to begin test flights for the Boeing 737 MAX. People close to the matter said that discussions had begun, but that details were yet to be worked out. China is the last major regulator to persist with the ban on the 737 MAX, and it could still be months before clearance is given for the type to return to the skies.
The final frontier
For Boeing, the return of its flagship narrowbody, the 737 MAX, has been going rather well. Every month sees new aircraft delivered to customers, grounded fleets reactivated and new orders flooding in. Confidence in the aircraft is high and customers are happy, but there is still one thorn in Boeing’s side.
China was the first regulator to ground the type back in 2019, following the second crash of a MAX 8. While most of the world’s regulators have re-authorized the type to fly in their airspace, China remains a final, important frontier that the aircraft has not yet breached.
But reports today suggest that the end could be in sight. Chinese officials have indicated that they could be ready to begin conduction flight tests on the 737 MAX, taking a first tentative step towards getting the aircraft recertified in the country.
Bloomberg cites people familiar with the matter as saying that discussions around validation flights are underway. Details are yet to be worked out, but it’s a sign of progress in an otherwise stalemate situation. Boeing is reportedly preparing to send over a team of some 35 pilots and engineers to assist in the recertification process.
It’s a positive step in the right direction, but it could still be many months before China is ready to lift its ban. While it previously said it still has ‘major concerns’ about the safety of the plane, geopolitics around the heightened trade tensions between China and the US are almost certainly coming into play.
Stay informed: Sign up for our daily and weekly aviation news digests.
An important market for Boeing
China is Boeing’s largest overseas market, and an important partner both for the 737 MAX and other product lines. At the time the aircraft was grounded, a significant number, 76 in all, were in the fleets of Chinese Airlines. 16 were in the fleet of China Southern, 16 with Air China, 14 with China Eastern, 10 with Xiamen Air, seven with each of Hainan and Shandong, five with Shenzhen and one with 9 Air.
More importantly, sizeable forward orders of 737 MAX aircraft currently sit with Chinese carriers. Between China Southern, Ruili Airlines, Donghai and Okay Airways, 114 MAX are yet to be delivered. Chinese leasing firms have a further 90 MAX on order. Chief Executive David Calhoun spoke about the situation at this year’s Bernstein conference, as reported by Reuters, saying,
“I do know that if it goes on for too long, I pay a price. I pay a price because they’re (China) the biggest part of the growth of the industry in the world.”
But the Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) is in no hurry. It has already laid out its demands for a return to service of the MAX – definitive findings from the crashes, adequate pilot training and certified design changes to the aircraft. And, of course, it is busy working its way through the certification of its own 737 MAX competitor, the C919.
While reports indicate that things are moving in the right direction, it could still be a long wait before Boeing sees its short-haul workhorse operating in the Far East again.