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American Airlines says it expects to resume flying Boeing’s 737 Max jet in January

The Federal Aviation Administration said it has not set a timetable for lifting its grounding of the aircraft.

A Boeing 737 MAX 8 jetliner being built for American Airlines prior to a test flight in Renton, Wash., on May 8. (Ted S. Warren/AP)

American Airlines said Wednesday it expects federal officials to sign off on software updates and other changes to Boeing’s 737 Max jets later this year and plans to resume passenger service on the aircraft on Jan. 16.

“American Airlines anticipates that the impending software updates to the Boeing 737 Max will lead to recertification of the aircraft later this year and resumption of commercial service in January 2020,” the airline said in a statement. “We are in continuous contact with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and Department of Transportation (DOT).”

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Despite American’s announcement, FAA officials maintained that there is no set timeline for returning the planes to service, and said it has not given airlines a date for when the grounding will be lifted.

“The FAA is following a thorough process, not a prescribed timeline, for returning the Boeing 737 Max to passenger service,” the agency said in an email. “The FAA is continuing to evaluate Boeing’s software modification and is still developing necessary training requirements.”

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However, executives at Boeing said they expect to submit their final certification package to the FAA later this year. Based on that, airlines have begun to lay the groundwork for returning the planes to service. For example, American is working closely with the Allied Pilots Association, which represents its pilots, on training and other issues.

American’s expected date for resuming service with the Max would make it the last of the major carriers to resume flying the plane under dates that have been announced. Southwest Airlines, which has the most Max jets of any U.S. carrier, has removed the plane from its schedule until Jan. 5, while United Airlines has removed the Max from its schedule until Dec. 19.

American’s announcement comes near nearly seven months after regulators around the world grounded the Max in the wake of two fatal crashes that killed 346 people.

This month marks the anniversary of the Oct. 29 crash of a Lion Air flight that plunged into the Java Sea shortly after takeoff, killing all 189 passengers and crew aboard. A final report on that crash is expected later this year. Less than five months later, a 737 Max flying under the Ethiopian Airlines banner went down shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa Bole International Airport, killing all 157 passengers and crew members aboard.

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In both instances, preliminary investigations pointed to issues with an anti-stall system known as the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), which was designed to compensate for changes to the plane’s design.

The crashes have led to increased scrutiny of the process the FAA followed in certifying that the newest version of the popular 737 aircraft was safe to fly, as well as Boeing’s role in that process. Both the FAA and Boeing are now subjects of numerous inquiries by congressional committees, the Transportation Department’s Inspector General and the Justice Department’s criminal division.

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Boeing has been working for months on software updates to the MCAS — an effort the company says has included hundreds of hours of software analysis, laboratory testing and simulator verification. In addition, it has conducted two test flights, including an in-flight certification test with the FAA, which must certify the changes before the planes can be cleared to fly.

American said it expects flights on the 737 Max to resume starting Jan. 16, and gradually increase throughout January and into February. The airline noted that because the number of flights on 737 Max jets will slowly increase over the course of a month, there may be additional schedule changes. Passengers affected by those changes will be contacted directly by the airline.

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American said it is working on accommodations for travelers who do not wish to travel on the 737 Max once it resumes flying and will release details in coming weeks.

Flights scheduled on Max planes through Jan. 6 will not be canceled. Instead, in most instances American will substitute other aircraft in their place. Schedules for travelers with reservations Jan. 7-15 will be updated on Sunday.