Southwest Airlines executives insisted Thursday that they remain anxious to see the 737 Max 8 return to service notwithstanding suggestions by CEO Gary Kelly that the Covid pandemic has lessened the urgency for adding new airplanes. Speaking during a media briefing from Southwest’s Dallas headquarters, Kelly estimated that it would take some 135 days to prepare its 34 Max 8s for service, pointing to a likely return to revenue flying no earlier than that first week of April.
“To be blunt about it, the pandemic makes this a pretty casual decision in some ways because we have a surplus of aircraft right now and it’s not like the business needs to press these airplanes into service all at once,” said Kelly. “But I’m anxious to get them back flying.”
Now carrying a fleet of 734 Boeing narrowbodies, including 737-700s, 737-800s, and the Max 8s, Southwest will likely end 2021 with roughly the same number of airplanes given the business outlook for next year, explained Kelly. Given that scenario, any deliveries from Boeing of new Max 8s mainly will serve to replace aging 737-700s.
“On the pandemic aspect, we have a pretty good line of sight for how things are going to wrap up for November, a pretty good line of sight for December, and, honestly, I’m not real optimistic the first quarter will improve much from the current levels of demand” added Kelly. “And all that means is we’ve got a bunch of surplus airplanes.”
In the meantime, Southwest’s tech ops will need to ready the airplanes from a maintenance perspective and pilots will need to train in accordance with a new FAA airworthiness directive that accompanied the order to lift the Max’s grounding on Wednesday.
Southwest Airlines technical operations vice president Landon Nitschke explained that it takes about 280 maintenance hours to “de-preserve” and perform ground checks with pilots on the 34 airplanes, all in desert storage in Victorville, California. Then, he said, the airplanes get ferried to one of Southwest’s main hangar cities for “make ready” checks, install emergency equipment, and perform any further maintenance beyond what the AD requires before departure from Victorville.
“We deployed a small team [on Tuesday] to start that process,” said Nitschke. “So we do have Southwest mechanics in Victorville working the aircraft as we speak.”
For pilots, training to fly in revenue service will take between two and three months, noted senior vice president of air operations Alan Kasher. But, even before that process begins, the airline needs to complete a series of steps to prepare to start training, including updating manuals and performing associated risk management for submission to Southwest’s local FAA office for approval.
“Then we’ll begin to train our initial cadre of trainers,” said Nitschke. Once instructors get trained, a period ensues when pilots bid on their preferences for training schedules; from there the actual training of line pilots begins.
Southwest’s schedules appear the most conservative among the U.S. operators that have announced their intentions to resume Max service. United Airlines, for example, said it expects to start flying the first of its 14 Max 9s during the first quarter, while American Airlines has scheduled the first of its 24 Max 8s on December 29 between Miami and New York LaGuardia Airport.