China’s problem with Boeing 737 MAX: when will it fly?

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Most of the major aviation regulators across the globe, such as the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), or Transport Canada (TC), have already approved the commercial use of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. However, the Chinese aviation body, being one of the last major regulators not to lift the ban, is yet to grant the recertification of Boeing 737 MAX aircraft  ‒ which begs the question why?

Boeing 737 MAX nearing China return?

Boeing is still facing a rocky path to gaining approval for its 737 MAX return in China. However, Chinese aviation regulators reportedly hinted that they were ready to get into the Boeing 737 MAX testing phase, a step towards the aircraft’s return to China.

Aviation officials from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) signaled they were open to conduct test flights on the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. However, conditions for validation were still under discussion, insider sources familiar with the matter told Bloomberg on July 8, 2021.

According to the report, Boeing would send a team of pilots and engineers to meet with Chinese aviation officials in late July 2021. Such a move might accelerate the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft recertification process in China. However, it could still take months for the ban to be lifted even after the test flight.

Earlier in April 2021, there were several hints that Boeing 737 MAX might soon be coming back to China, as airlines were preparing the aircraft for a return to service. Xiamen Airlines, a subsidiary of China Southern Airlines (ZNH), told the Chinese media outlet the Global Times that it was modifying its Boeing 737 MAX airplanes after the technical guidelines issued by Boeing. However, despite the preparations, Xiamen Airlines did not indicate an actual timetable for the 737 MAX return to service, as the CAAC had not given a go-ahead for Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. 

Why is China delaying 737 MAX recertification?

China was the first country to ground the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft in 2019 after two deadly crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia claimed 346 lives. 

At the moment, China is one of the last major countries having not yet approved the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft for commercial use.

During a press conference in Beijing, China on March 1, 2021, Dong Zhiyi, the Deputy Head of the CAAC, said that the authority was intensively communicating with Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) about “major safety concerns” of the 737 MAX jet, including new pilot training and aircraft design changes. 

“From the current situation, the major safety concerns that were raised by the CAAC have not been fully met, and for this reason, the relevant technological review has not entered the certified airworthiness phase,” Dong explained at the time. “The technical review has not yet entered the certification and flight test stage.” 

However, the CAAC did not indicate the reason why the Chinese aviation body was taking noticeably more time to assess the safety of the aircraft than regulatory bodies of Canada or Europe. China’s lengthy assessment of the 737 MAX safety has prompted speculations that poor US-China political relations were a factor why the plane was not yet cleared by Chinese regulators, the insider sources familiar with the matter told Reuters earlier in June 2021.

AeroTime News reached out to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) for comment and did not receive a response at the time of publication. 

Boeing 737 MAX role in China

The operational approval by the Chinese authorities plays a significant role for Boeing since China is a crucial market for the 737 MAX. If China gives it a green light, it will be an important step for the plane maker’s commercial success. 

The pending approval for the 737 MAX commercial use in China poses a risk for Boeing of seeing profits and market share slip to its biggest rival Airbus and the potential future competitor COMAC C919, which aims for local certification by the end of 2021.

“I do know that if it goes on for too long, I pay a price,” Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun said during a Bernstein conference on June 3, 2021. “I pay a price because they’re [China – ed. note] the biggest part of the growth of the industry in the world.”

According to Boeing’s order book, China Southern Airlines (ZNH) ordered 50 Boeing 737 MAX in 2015, Air China ordered 16 737 MAXs in 2014, while China Eastern Airlines (CIAH) (CEA) ordered 14 MAXs in 2014. Out of China’s Big Three airlines, China Southern is the largest Boeing 737 MAX operator, currently having a total of 24 737 MAX aircraft in its fleet, data shows. Adding to that, Air China has a total of 16 MAXs, while China Eastern Airlines (CIAH) (CEA) has only three 737 MAX aircraft in its fleet.

Boeing had hoped China would approve the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft by the end of 2020. In January 2021, Boeing said it expected the MAX to be recertified by regulators everywhere by the end of June 2021. Now, it seems that Boeing will need to wait longer in order to see the 737 MAX flying in China again. 


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Vyte Klisauskaite
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