Federal Aviation Administration head Steve Dickson flew Boeing's (NYSE:BA) 737 MAX on Wednesday, an important symbolic milestone in the company's effort to get the plane airborne again.
The 737 Max has been grounded since March 2019 after a pair of fatal accidents, but Boeing has been working with U.S. and international regulators to review changes made in response to those crashes in hopes of getting the plane recertified. A number of regulatory bodies have conducted test flights, but Dickson, a former military and commercial pilot, was eager to take the controls himself.
Following a two-hour test flight on Wednesday, Dickson told reporters that "we're in the homestretch" when it comes to recertifying the 737 MAX, but said "that doesn't mean we're going to take shortcuts."
Boeing had hoped to have the plane flying again before the end of the third quarter, but complications including pandemic-related travel restrictions have stalled the international evaluation process and caused the timetable to slip. Even after the plane is cleared to fly, there will likely be a lag before airlines operate it on scheduled service as pilots will need to be retrained to fly it.
The return of the 737 MAX is an important part of Boeing's turnaround plan. The company's shares have lost about half their value in 2020 due to a combination of MAX-related expenses and a fall in air travel due to the pandemic. Boeing has more than 400 of the planes on its property that are yet to be delivered, and placing them with customers will be no easy task.
Airlines have cut back on their fleets, causing demand for new aircraft to fall. The combination of falling demand and a glut of inventory has led Boeing to slow manufacturing. The company, which before the grounding had hoped to be manufacturing at least 55 MAX jets per month by now, instead will likely make fewer than 80 in all of 2020 and hopes to gradually rebuild production to 31 planes per month in the years to come.