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SEATTLE, WASHINGTON - It has been more than 15 months after Boeing's best-selling 737 MAX series jets were grounded following two deadly crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia.

The aircraft was grounded in March 2019 after two fatal crashes that killed 346 people. Boeing has been working on fixing the automatic safety feature that malfunctioned and forced the nose of both planes down, causing the crashes. But Boeing has missed deadline after deadline to win regulatory approval along the way. Its most recent target - approval by the middle of this year - is now here. So are the test flights that are one of the final steps needed for clearance.

With that history of missed deadlines, neither the Federal Aviation Administration nor Boeing will say when the plane will be approved to fly passengers again. The airlines have indicated they aren't planning on flying the plane until late this year, at the earliest.

Experts say that's a relatively safe bet. "It'll take several months, easily, to deal with the training and fixes,"

said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group.

"The Covid-19 situation will hobble the process a little bit. A couple of days before Thanksgiving is my bet for when it flies."

Pilots from the FAA started test flights with the plane last week and are continuing those tests this week. Once the agency is satisfied, it could give relatively quick clearance for the plane. But that's only the start, not the end.

"We have too many airplanes right now," 

said Southwest CEO Gary Kelly at the company's shareholder meeting last month talking about the outlook for a return to service for the Max. Southwest flies nothing but 737 jets.

Southwest pushed back the orders for planes that had been scheduled for delivery by 2021. It had 34 of the planes in its fleet at the time of the grounding, the most of any airline.

But Kelly said he would like to see the 737 Max planes it owns in service carrying passengers sooner rather than later, along with those that Boeing has already built for it but has yet to deliver.

"The Max airplane is superior to the ...[version of the] 737 that we're currently operating. It burns less fuel. It's an excellent airplane. And certainly, in this environment, we would love to retire some of our older aircraft, avoid some expensive maintenance, and a substitute with the newer airplanes."

Getting approval for the jet to fly passengers again is important to both Boeing and its airline customers. But in the time of the pandemic and the worst crisis in memory for the global aviation industry, it's just not as important as it seemed at the start of this year.


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