Boeing's (NYSE:BA) troubled 737 MAX jet is one step closer to being cleared for commercial flights again. This week, Boeing and FAA staff completed three days of test flights -- a key part of the process to determine whether recent design changes have made the aircraft safe to fly.

Six months ago, reaching this milestone would have been seen as a big turning point for Boeing. While the recertification process isn't complete yet, Boeing is now well positioned to resume 737 MAX deliveries later this year. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has decimated aircraft demand in recent months, making steps toward recertifying the 737 MAX far less meaningful.

Still some recertification steps left

In the weeks ahead, FAA officials will analyze data gathered during the recent series of test flights. This will help them verify the effectiveness of Boeing's design changes. Other upcoming steps in the recertification process include analyzing proposed pilot training procedures and documentation supplied by Boeing. Following a public comment period, the FAA may finally take the long-awaited steps of recertifying the 737 MAX and outlining the procedures that airlines must follow to reactivate their 737 MAX fleets.

Based on the current timeline -- which could still change -- the FAA may recertify the 737 MAX as soon as mid-September, according to Reuters. That would enable a return to service in the U.S. before year end.

Recertification won't mark the end of the 737 MAX grounding saga, though. International regulators -- particularly in Europe -- are poised to demand additional modifications to the 737 MAX's safety systems by the end of next year. These changes (and retrofits for aircraft that have already been produced) will add costs for Boeing, denting future profits. Pilots will also need additional simulator training to fly the 737 MAX going forward, which could trigger payments by Boeing to airline customers to cover the related cost.

A Boeing 737 MAX 9 flying over clouds

Image source: Boeing.

A plane without a market

Despite the 737 MAX's initial design flaws and the resulting crashes, the aircraft was in high demand prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Between the strength of global air travel demand and production constraints at Airbus, canceling 737 MAX orders wasn't a realistic option for most of Boeing's customers.

Today, the situation is much different. Air travel remains far below 2019 levels, and industry insiders believe it will take several years for demand to recover fully. As a result, airlines are trying to defer or cancel as many aircraft deliveries as possible. Due to the extensive delivery delays for 737 MAX jets originally scheduled to be handed over in 2019 and 2020, customers in many cases have the right to cancel some of their orders.

In the first five months of 2020, more than 600 737 MAX orders evaporated from Boeing's backlog. Meanwhile, the company secured just a handful of net orders for its wide-body models.

The flood of order cancellations isn't over yet, either. Last week, leasing company BOC Aviation announced that it had canceled 30 737 MAX orders. More significantly, Norwegian Air canceled 92 737 MAX orders and five 787 Dreamliner orders. Adding insult to injury, the floundering European budget carrier filed a lawsuit demanding compensation for losses due to the 737 MAX grounding and engine problems for its existing 787 fleet. It also wants Boeing to return its pre-delivery deposits. Considering that Norwegian was a major customer and Boeing holds more than $50 billion of customer advances and progress billings, these deposits likely total hundreds of millions of dollars.

There are still a handful of airlines eager for new aircraft. As air travel demand recovers, other airlines will also need to buy new planes to replace older jets and enable growth. Nevertheless, demand could remain well below previous levels for the foreseeable future, assuming global air travel grows at a slower rate during the next decade than it did over the past five years.

Grim times ahead

In the first 12 months after the 737 MAX grounding last March, Boeing was able to partially offset cash burn from that part of its business with profits from its wide-body jet programs and its services business. But in the current environment, those sources of cash are drying up, too. Airlines are retiring older jets rather than spending money on Boeing services offerings that could extend those planes' useful lives. Simultaneously, wide-body demand has plummeted, as international travel is likely to be one of the slowest parts of the aviation market to recover.

For example, Boeing is in the midst of slashing 787 production by half (from 14 per month to seven per month). Yet even that production rate may be too ambitious. Whereas Boeing delivered 29 787 Dreamliners in the first quarter, it appears to have delivered just seven in the second quarter. Furthermore, key customers like Qatar Airways -- which accounts for 9% of Boeing's wide-body backlog -- are demanding multiyear order deferrals.

Aircraft demand will recover eventually. That said, "eventually" could be many years away. In the meantime, Boeing has taken on tens of billions of dollars of debt and is burning through cash at a frightening pace. Investors would be wise to avoid the stock.