In March 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) grounded the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft after two fatal crashes that killed over 300 people. Both crashes occurred after a single anti-stall sensor failed, forcing the aircraft’s nose to pitch down and ultimately crash. Now, after nearly two years of design changes, the MAX has been certified to fly again, and airlines are ready to get it back in their fleets, particularly Alaska Airlines.
On Monday, the carrier announced that it would be leasing 13 new Boeing 737-9 MAX aircraft from Air Lease Corporation (ALC), and subsequently selling ten of its Airbus A320 aircraft to them as part of the deal. After the transaction is complete, Alaska said it would be leasing the A320 aircraft back from ALC for a short period.
Alaska CEO Brad Tilden commented on the agreement, stating, “Alaska’s relationship with [ALC Chairman and Chief Executive Steven Udvar-Házy] dates back to the early 1980s and we’re thrilled to work with him and ALC on an agreement that will enhance our fleet and advance our environmental, operational and financial performance. We found an opportunity to sell 10 planes that are not in our long-term plans and replace them with 13 of the most efficient narrow-body aircraft available.”
According to Alaska, the MAX aircraft is 20% more efficient and can fly 600 miles further than the A320s currently in its fleet. The jet’s longer range will offer opportunities for new nonstop routes and destinations in the company’s network. In addition to the 13 leased aircraft, Alaska also has 32 MAX planes on order from Boeing, with the first one to begin flying by March 2021 and five to be flying by summer 2021.
Concerns Over the Return of the MAX Aircraft
While the MAX’s return is exciting for airlines, the FAA warns that passengers may show hesitation to fly on it. MIT aeronautics professor John Hansman explained that after issues arise with a particular aircraft, customers avoid it for a few months. However, he explained that the MAX is unique and that he would feel safe flying on the plane. He said, “This whole thing has had more scrutiny than any airplane in the world. It’s probably the safest airplane to be on.”
While Boeing, the FAA and safety experts are confident with the MAX’s redesign, the families of the crash victims are not convinced. They believe Boeing is hiding critical documentation from the agency and countries worldwide, and that the company continually fails to prioritize safety.
However, Alaska’s management and safety team are adamant that the plane is safe, saying, “We’ve been closely testing, verifying and implementing all the necessary processes to ensure the MAX aircraft meets our high safety standards. At Alaska, safety is always priority number one. If an aircraft is not safe, we won’t fly it.”
Despite the concerns raised by the families, Alaska insists that the MAX will safely return to its fleet. In a statement on its website, the carrier explained that its pilots, mechanics and safety experts would put the plane through its own tests, including flying over 19,000 miles and 50 hours, and require employees to participate in tailored training programs. Specifically, pilots will receive eight hours of MAX-specific training that will include two hours of flight simulator time to practice maneuvers and other challenging scenarios. Furthermore, pilots will be taught the differences between the MAX and the rest of the airline’s 737 fleets, allowing them to transition between the two easily.
Alaska’s maintenance technicians will also receive specialized MAX training to include 40 hours of “differences training” to distinguish the new model from the existing 737s. Furthermore, flight attendants will receive computer-based training to understand the differences between the models, such as the MAX’s new life vest location in the overhead compartments instead of under the seats.
Alaska sees a lot of potential for the MAX in its fleet. The airline said that the aircraft would begin service on its Seattle-Los Angeles, Seattle-San Diego, Portland-Las Vegas and Portland-Los Angeles routes, and eventually expand operations to Hawaii and the East Coast. In addition to Alaska, American Airlines is also integrating the MAX into its fleet. According to Reuters, American is planning to launch the 737 MAX 8 aircraft on one daily roundtrip flight from New York LaGuardia Airport to Miami International Airport beginning on Dec. 29, just over a month away.