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FAA clears Boeing 737 Max to fly again after 20-month grounding spurred by deadly crashes

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The Federal Aviation Administration on Wednesday cleared the Boeing‘s 737 Max to fly passengers again after a nearly two-year ban, a turning point in a protracted crisis for the aircraft giant stemming from two crashes of its top-selling plane that killed 346 people.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson after ungrounding the plane said a repeat of the conditions in both crashes is now “impossible” thanks to design and training changes.

The fallout from the crashes has engulfed Boeing for more than two years, drawing criticism about design flaws’ roles in the crashes and on how the Chicago-based company marketed the plane, touting its simple training procedures, which would save airlines money.

The crashes and the grounding also raised scrutiny on the FAA, long the world’s gold standard of aviation, and raising questions about whether it ceded too much power in the certification process to Boeing before it approved the planes in 2017.

“We will never forget the lives lost in the two tragic accidents that led to the decision to suspend operations,” Boeing’s CEO David Calhoun said in a statement. “These events and the lessons we have learned as a result have reshaped our company and further focused our attention on our core values of safety, quality and integrity.”

The end of the 20-month flight ban also gives Boeing the chance to start handing over the roughly 450 Max jetliners it has produced but has been unable to deliver to customers after regulators ordered airlines to stop flying them in March 2019. Boeing shares were little changed in afternoon trading after on the FAA’s decision, which was expected.

Boeing has a backlog of more than 3,000 other Boeing 737 Max planes, when stripping out orders that the manufacturer believes could be cancelled. That tally has declined as the lengthy grounding coupled with the coronavirus pandemic prompted customers to call off hundreds of orders.

Regulators grounded the Max in March 2019 after the second of two nearly new 737 Max planes crashed within five months of one another. The crashes prompted a lengthy safety review that was met with numerous delays, driving up losses and costs for Boeing.

For months after the crashes, Boeing and the FAA faced criticism from lawmakers and some air safety experts about the plane’s design and certification. Tensions over the grounding between Boeing and the FAA cost the former CEO his job. U.S. lawmakers are now advancing legislation that would strengthen the FAA’s oversight of new aircraft after it was criticized for being too lax on the new aircraft.

Investigations into the crashes and the Max’s development focused on an automated flight control system that was meant to prevent the aircraft from stalling. Pilots on both flights that crashed — Lion Air Flight 610 on Oct. 29, 2018, and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 on March 10, 2019 — struggled against the system after it was activated because of faulty sensor data.

Grounded Boeing 737 MAX aircraft are seen parked in an aerial photo at Boeing Field in Seattle, Washington, July 1, 2019.

Lindsey Wasson | Reuters

Pilots weren’t informed about the system, and mentions of it had been removed from pilot manuals when they were delivered to airlines. A House investigation in September found regulatory, design and management problems as the jets were being developed led to the “preventable death” of everyone on board.

Boeing has made the system less aggressive and added more redundancies, among other changes over the past two years.

Airlines still have to train pilots and remove aircraft from storage, if they had 737 Maxes in their fleets at the time of the grounding.

American Airlines is set to be the first U.S. airline to return the aircraft to commercial service at the end of December. The carrier on Wednesday said it plans to expand Max flights throughout January from its Miami hub.

United Airlines and Southwest Airlines executives have said they expect the planes to return to their schedules at some point next year.

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