Boeing is nearing a long-delayed approval for the grounded 737 Max

Boeing appears close to securing key regulatory approvals for its grounded 737 Max to fly again — a potential lifeline for the struggling plane maker.

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Chris Isidore
, CNN Business
CNN — Boeing appears close to securing key regulatory approvals for its grounded 737 Max to fly again — a potential lifeline for the struggling plane maker.

The approval process has moved at a glacial pace, taking more than a year longer than Boeing had hoped. Even with the recent progress, there are many bureaucratic procedures, plane repairs and pilot training that must be completed, enough to keep airlines from putting passengers on the planes until sometime next year.

The approval will come as demand for passenger jets has nearly evaporated due to the sharp drop in air travel and massive losses across the airline industry caused by the pandemic.

Some good news for Boeing came Friday, when the the EU Aviation Safety Agency confirmed it is also getting close to giving the all-clear. But it will still take more than a month to complete that final approval.

Patrick Ky, executive director of the agency, told Bloomberg he's satisfied with the steps that Boeing has taken to make the plane safe. But even after the approval to fly again, the agency will still require Boeing to make an additional software upgrade for an extra layer of redundancy. That will likely take another two years to complete, he said.

The plane has been grounded since March 2019 following two fatal crashes that killed 346 people.

Boeing had initially hoped for a relatively short grounding, but it has been difficult to get approval. And the FAA has faced its own criticism for the way it initially approved the plane as safe to fly, and why it didn't act in the five months between the first and second crash. Embarrassing documents revealed that Boeing engineers and other employees had doubts about the plane's safety during the initial review of the plane.

For much of last year, Boeing predicted it would be flying by the fourth quarter of 2019. Earlier this year it was predicting it would get approval by mid-year. Now, the end of 2020 seems to be the best-case scenario for approval for the plane.

"We continue to work closely with global regulators on the rigorous process to re-certify the 737 Max and safely return the airplane to commercial service," said Boeing. "We are committed to addressing the regulators' questions and meeting all certification and regulatory requirements."

Last week, the FAA published a draft of the proposed pilot training for the Max — just one of a half-dozen procedural steps the agency has laid out that will need to be completed before it grants final approval for airlines to fly the plane again.

And while the FAA has been working with aviation regulators around the world, those other regulators have their own approval processes. Most of the 400 grounded jets are owned by foreign airlines.

In an unusual move last month, Steve Dickson, the head of the FAA and a former airline pilot, did his own test flight of the Max. Afterward, he said he liked what he saw on the flight, but he wanted to make some tweaks to the training that pilots would receive to fly the plane again. "Not so much in the procedures, but in the narrative that describes the procedures," he told reporters after the flight.

The cause of the two fatal crashes was a safety feature designed to push the nose of the plane down if it was climbing too steeply and in danger of a stall. But faulty monitors gave false readings on those two flights, and the pilots were unable to pull the planes out of dives.

The grounding has cost Boeing at least $18.7 billion in increased production costs, compensation to its airline customers and the cost of developing the improvements.

And the problems at Boeing have only compounded since the grounding of the Max. Demand for air travel ground to a near halt earlier this year and airline losses soared when the pandemic hit, drastically reducing orders and deliveries of jets.

There are about 7,300 earlier versions of the 737 now in airline fleets around the world, and nearly 20% of those are parked, according to Cirium Fleets, which tracks planes in use worldwide.

Once the Max is approved to fly again, airlines may be eager to resume using them, even if it means parking some of the older planes now in use. The Max was Boeing's bestselling jet before its grounding, in part because it is more fuel-efficient and thus cheaper to operate than the earlier versions.

But Boeing may still have a branding problem. With many passengers already nervous about flying in the midst of a pandemic, there is uncertainty as to how willing customers will be to fly the 737 Max. Several airlines have said they will allow passengers to book onto other flights if they don't want to fly on the 737 Max.

-- CNN's Hanna Ziady contributed to this report

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