HARLINGEN — The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday cleared the Boeing 737 Max aircraft to return to flying after nearly two years of being grounded after a pair of deadly crashes.
The Max could be in the air by the end of the year. And while the Max doesn’t routinely fly into Valley International Airport, it’s good news for an airline industry which hasn’t had much of it in the past nine months.
“All three airlines in the United States that operate the 737 Max, all those three airlines fly to Valley International Airport,” Jose Mulet, director of air service and development at the airport, said Wednesday. “Southwest, United and American. Of those three airlines, Southwest has the most grounded in that type of airplane.”
The reason for the 737 Max not flying into Valley International — the runway length is not a problem — is it makes more economic sense for the airlines to use those planes on long-distance flights.
“Southwest most likely will fly those airplanes on the long haul because the aircraft is so much more fuel efficient, you’re talking 12 to 15 percent more fuel efficient,” Mulet said. “The plane has new engines, and the new engines are more fuel efficient and they’re quieter. So the passenger experience in the cabin is going to be nicer than the older model.”
Asked if he would have any qualms about flying a 737 Max, Mulet did not hesitate.
“No. No problems,” he answered.
FAA chief Stephen Dickson on Wednesday rescinded the grounding of the 737 Max put in place 20 months ago. U.S. airlines will be able to fly the Max domestically after Boeing updates critical software and computers on the planes and pilots do some training in flight simulators.
Mulet said Southwest will begin flying its 737 Maxes sometime next spring, about the time United will roll their Maxes back out.
American Airlines, he said, plans to begin flying its 737 Maxes as early as December or January, he added.
“Once the FAA clears that airplane, then it’s up to the aviation authorities in Spain, Germany and the other countries to clear the plane as well,” Mulet said. “That will happen very, very quickly.”
Whether airlines can fill the newly available 737 Max seats is another question entirely.
Consumers have been avoiding airlines and airports since March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Air travel in the United States is down about 65 percent from a year ago.