The most important airline story in 2021

Skift take

The Boeing 737 Max resumed flight, ending a 20-month downtime that began in 2019 after two fatal crashes. Most people didn’t even notice it, and that’s exactly what the airlines and Boeing wanted. Despite this, the airplane is a vital piece of equipment that airlines rely on to help them come out of the pandemic.

Madhu Unnikrishnan

Sometimes the daily news cycle, even at a specialized pace like that of the airlines, can obscure what truly is the industry’s most important story, especially in a year still shaken by the pandemic. Of course, vaccination warrants and the ever-elusive return of business travel are important to cover. But most importantly, the one that will have the most lasting impact on the industry as it emerges from the pandemic is the resolution of a story that began before Covid-19: the Boeing 737 Max.

The plane had just returned to the skies of the United States and a few selected countries earlier this year. In fact, there were only 46 flights operated by Max globally as of January 1, 2021 – a fraction of 1% of global flight activity – according to Cirium’s schedules. And that left airlines with a lot of unknowns: would travelers be returning to the jet? And, could carriers bet on planes for their planned summer schedules and ambitious climate goals?

A little refreshment. The 737 Max was grounded in March 2019 after fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia left 346 people dead. The crashes were ultimately linked to the aircraft’s flight control software, and Boeing came under Fire for taking shortcuts in the development of the aircraft. After Boeing changed the software, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) re-approved the aircraft in November 2020. Regulators around the world have followed suit throughout this year, the biggest hurdle being China, which announced it would recertify the plane in 2022.

Airlines were quickly reminded why they ordered thousands of Maxes in the first place. The aircraft, a re-engineered version of Boeing’s venerable 737 family dating from the 1960s, is up to 25% more fuel efficient than its predecessors, making it cheaper to fly and much more durable. It also has a longer reach and can carry more weight than the next-gen 737s it would replace. Most importantly, the pilot training costs, even after factoring in the new flight control software and training requirements, are much lower than they would have been with an entirely different aircraft. This allowed airlines that were already large 737 operators to get on the plane with minimal disruption to their schedules and crew lists.

While wide-body aircraft like the double-deck Airbus A380 with their luxurious first-class seats and onboard showers capture the imagination, it is the small, single-aisle, 150-200 seat planes that are the workhorses of the industry. They make up the largest portion of airline fleets and carry most of the passengers. So any gain in efficiency, whether it’s fuel consumption or costs saved in crew training, is money in the bank for airlines. That’s why so many carriers, like Southwest Airlines and Ryanair, rushed to order as many Max as possible.

The airlines let out a collective sigh of relief when the Max returned to the sky. After Brazilian carrier Gol was the first to return it to commercial service, the floodgates were opened with American Airlines, United Airlines and Southwest all joining them over the following months. But experts wrung their hands, predicting passengers would be too scared to fly on the plane. Almost all of the airlines that operate the Max have gone so far as to offer passengers the option of changing their flights if the plane makes them nervous.

Then, nothing. A handful of flyers told TV cameras they booked, but by and large the flying public didn’t care. And it was a much needed boost for airlines already reeling from the pandemic.

Experts and analysts have also said that immobilizing the Max will be a blow from which Boeing could never recover. And although Boeing suffered serious damage to its reputation, was reprimanded by Congress, and suffered a multi-billion dollar financial blow, the aircraft manufacturer survived.

And in fact, Boeing flourished. As soon as the dust settled and it was clear passengers would be flying on the plane and regulators around the world would eventually certify it, orders began to pour in. Aeromexico, Alaska Airlines, Gol, Ryanair, Southwest Airlines, and United are among the airlines that have pledged billions of dollars for hundreds more Maxs since the FAA lifted the ground. Same Delta Airlines, who had never flown the plane, said he was considering the plane.

The problem with Boeing now is actually not being able to build and deliver the planes fast enough. The manufacturer is regularly working on the number of planes it was unable to deliver during the downtime and is increasing its production from 19 planes per month to 31. It plans to deliver more than 500 Max next year, both from its inventory and from its new construction. airplane. And orders for a Max that have been placed now won’t be delivered for several years, due to the backlog.

In other words, Boeing, which already deals with problems Delivering 787s along with production delays to its 777X program, is likely to struggle with a good problem: too many orders for the Max, rather than too few.

All of this happened against a pandemic that hit airlines and with the continuing threats of new variants and new epidemics. But the Max’s successful return to flight signaled rare good news for the industry. But more importantly, for airlines, the Max is a critical piece of hardware to rebuild and meet their environmental goals, thanks to its fuel efficiency, as they envision their post-pandemic future.

Senior Skift Airlines reporter Edward Russell contributed to this report.