Boeing 737s sit at the company’s manufacturing facility in Renton in March 2019. (David Ryder/Bloomberg, file)

Boeing 737s sit at the company’s manufacturing facility in Renton in March 2019. (David Ryder/Bloomberg, file)

Boeing 737 Max moves another step closer to returning

Test flights were performed from Vancouver to get around coronavirus-related U.S. travel curbs.

By Richard Weiss, Julie Johnsson and Layan Odeh / Bloomberg

Boeing’s grounded 737 Max jetliner completed a round of test flights with European air-safety regulators, taking another step toward a return to the skies.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency will now evaluate data from the trips, it said in a statement Friday. The agency, based in Cologne, Germany, performed the flights from Vancouver, near Boeing’s Seattle-area operations, to get around coronavirus-related U.S. travel curbs.

“As the next step in its evaluation of the aircraft for return to service, EASA is now analyzing the data and other information gathered during the flights,” the agency said.

The European flight tests follow similar assessments conducted by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and Transport Canada. Pandemic-related travel restrictions have delayed recertification of the Max, which has been grounded since March 2019 after two crashes killed 346 people. Both accidents were tied to a safety feature that malfunctioned and repeatedly commanded the jets to dive.

An evaluation of how pilots react to the updated aircraft, which will be used to establish new training standards, will take place next week at London’s Gatwick airport. The group running that process, the Joint Operations Evaluation Board, is overseen by regulators from Canada, Europe, Brazil and the U.S.

EASA meanwhile has to complete various internal consultations and documentation, meaning it will likely take a few more weeks until the agency will certify the jet.

Boeing was little changed at $157 at 9:58 a.m. in New York. The stock had dropped 52% this year through Thursday, the worst slump on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

The Chicago-based company has said it aims to return the single-aisle plane to service in the fourth quarter, provided it clears the final regulatory hurdles.

EASA’s backing is seen as key to gaining global support for the aircraft, after the Max crisis damaged the FAA’s reputation as the leader in air safety. Regulators in the United Arab Emirates are likely to follow along without conducting their own flight tests should U.S. and European officials clear the plane for commercial use, a person familiar with the matter said.

For Boeing, restoring the cash flow provided by its most popular jet has taken on added significance after the planemaker disclosed manufacturing issues that have slowed production of its other major cash-generating jetliner, the 787 Dreamliner.

Boeing has built about 450 Max models during the grounding and has targeted delivery of more than half of those in the first 12 months after re-certification.

While the pandemic has slowed the process to re-certify the Max, it’s also slammed jet demand. Boeing this year tallied more than 400 cancellations of 737 Max orders and nabbed its first new contracts for the plane last month.

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