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Boeing MAX cleared to fly as FAA lifts long grounding

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Boeing's 737 MAX can safely return to the skies with an extensive package of fixes, US regulators ruled, after a scarring 20-month hiatus prompted by a pair of fatal crashes.

[NEW YORK] Boeing's 737 MAX can safely return to the skies with an extensive package of fixes, US regulators ruled, after a scarring 20-month hiatus prompted by a pair of fatal crashes.

The actions announced Wednesday on the Federal Aviation Administration's website mark the end to the longest grounding of a jetliner in US history and set the stage for airlines and other regulators around the world to resume passenger service with the plane.

Boeing shares jumped 5.3 per cent to US$221.27 in pre-market New York trading. Through Tuesday, they had lost 50 per cent of their value since the March 10, 2019 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines Group flight that triggered the global grounding of the 737 MAX.

The FAA action is a dramatic turning point for Boeing after more than two years of bad news surrounding its best-selling model. But the aircraft's return won't mean an immediate end to the controversy or a cash infusion for the company's suffering bottom line.

A criminal probe by the US Justice Department continues. Frayed relations with the FAA threaten to result in fines or other penalties and the Securities and Exchange Commission also has an open investigation. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 pandemic has crushed the airline industry, prompting airlines to cancel orders for the MAX and thwarting Boeing's plans to quickly reverse its losses.

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"It's Boeing's most important programme and the United States' most important manufactured product, but you couldn't ask for a worse market right now," Richard Aboulafia, aerospace analyst with Teal Group, said in an interview before the FAA's move. "It's not a question of opening the floodgates and watching the cash pour in the way it would've been a year ago." The FAA is requiring repairs to a safety system that went haywire in the two crashes and multiple other flaws discovered during months of reviews. It is also mandating new pilot training for the MAX focusing on issues that arose in the accidents.

The actions are unlikely to quell controversy surrounding the plane. Family members of those killed in an Ethiopian Airlines crash on March 10, 2019, have repeatedly charged the plane is unsafe even with the fixes and it remains to be seen whether the public will be wary of its return.

The MAX's comeback will be gradual. It won't be widely flown for several months as airlines must first train pilots, inspect jets emerging from long desert sojourns and complete the FAA-mandated repairs. Of the US operators, only American Airlines has put the MAX jets back into its schedule, with flights starting Dec 29 on a lone route: Miami to New York.

Southwest Airlines plans to put its entire pilot workforce through the new training before reintroducing the MAX, delaying the return by months, chairman Gary Kelly said Monday in an online interview with Aviation Week Network.

"It will be well into 2021 before we're in revenue service," Mr Kelly said.

United Airlines Holdings, the other US carrier with the MAX, expects to resume service in the first quarter.

In all, there are 72 of the planes in the US and another 315 at airlines in the rest of the world. About 450 additional MAX jets were built by Boeing but haven't been delivered, amounting to billions of dollars in inventory that the company will soon be able to start turning into cash.

The European Aviation Safety Agency has said that it is satisfied with the FAA-led review of the MAX and is prepared to lift its ban soon. Canada and Brazil, which are also among the world's leaders in aircraft certification, are also expected to take similar actions. At the insistence of EASA and Canada, Boeing is also working on longer-term fixes to improve the plane's safety.

However, China, the first country to ground the jet, hasn't given a clear timetable for its return.

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