Boeing chief executive Dennis Muilenburg says the 737 MAX could be back in the air by the end of 2019.
Although optimistic, Muilenburg was reluctant to make any promises during an interview with CNBC on Monday (US time) when asked whether he expected the disaster-plagued aircraft to be operating again by the end of 2019.
Asked if he thought the 737 MAX was going to be back in the skies before the end of 2019 at this point, Muilenburg said: “I do, but again I can’t give you the specific timeline on it.”
Boeing was working closely with regulators on a day-to-day basis, but the pace would be determined by the investment being made in safety, he said.
“The most important thing here is safety and we will be back up and flying when we are ready, and we will do that jointly with our customers and with the regulators.”
The global fleet of the 737 MAX sits grounded following fatal crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 in October 2018 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 in March 2019, in both cases soon after take-off, with a combined death toll of 346.
The accidents put the spotlight on the 737 MAX’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) and the pilot training required to deal with its unexpected and potentially dangerous behaviour.
Muilenberg told CNBC that Boeing was working through the problems in disciplined way with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
“We have completed the software development work. We’re now in the process of answering questions that the FAA has that include some sessions in our simulators this week,” he said.
“We hope to schedule the certification flight very soon, and then after that a decision from the FAA to return to flight.”
Boeing has developed a software fix for the 737 MAX’s Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS) that it has said previously added extra layers of protection from erroneous data out of the aircraft’s angle of attack (AOA) sensors.
The company has also updated its training program for pilots seeking to be qualified to fly the 737 MAX.
Both the software fix and pilot training have been submitted to the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has to approve the changes and re-certify the aircraft before it will be allowed back into the skies.
“In this particular case with the improvements we’re making to the MAX software, we’ve taken a deep look at how we can build additional redundancies into that so-called MCAS software,” Muilenburg said.
— AFP Photo (@AFPphoto) March 29, 2019
Asked when Boeing would return to a 737 MAX production rate to 52 aircraft a month – having temporarily reduced it to 47 aircraft a month following the grounding of the fleet – Muilenburg said: “I won’t put a time on it because it will be paced by a return to service.”
“The most important thing is to focus on safety. When we are ready to ramp back up production wise, we will.
“The long-term market still says the world still needs 43,000 new airplanes over the next 20 years and the MAX is a big part of that.”
Muilenbrg was asked by CNBC whether Boeing had received a single order for the aircraft since it was grounded by regulators around the world.
“No,” he said.
The Reuters news agency reported on Monday Azerbaijan airline AZAL had cancelled its purchase of 10 737 MAX aircraft.
Closer to home, Virgin Australia has deferred first delivery of the 737 MAX from the end of 2019 to mid-2021 as part of a restructured order book that pushes back capital expenditure amid ongoing efforts to strengthen the balance sheet.
VIDEO: Part of Dennis Muilenburg’s interview with CNBC from the broadcaster’s website.