It’s been some time since we wrote about the Boeing 737 MAX, with the type indefinitely grounded back in March 2018 following a second fatal accident in Ethiopia, less than five months after Lion Air flight 610 crashed shortly after takeoff from Jakarta.
In both accidents, a system called MCAS repeatedly pushed the nose of the aircraft down shortly after takeoff and the pilots were unable to regain control.
Recertification efforts have been progressively moving forward, however, and on 18th November 2020 the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the United States approved a return to service for the Boeing 737 MAX 8 and MAX 9 models.
Three airlines are now flying the aircraft type again on commercial passenger flights – Gol, Aeromexico and most recently American Airlines, with others set to follow in the coming weeks.
SilkAir’s first 737 MAX is heading home
This morning SilkAir flight MI8880, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 registered 9V-MBA, departed from Alice Springs, Australia, and at the time of writing is en-route to Changi with an arrival time of around 2.50pm.
The aircraft was the first Boeing 737 MAX 8 delivered to the airline at the end of September 2017. It entered service between Changi and Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Phnom Penh and Phuket during October 2017, before launching on its first regular route to and from Hiroshima at the end of that month.
The aircraft last flew passengers 660 days ago on 11th March 2019 from Wuhan to Singapore, a day before the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) grounded the Boeing 737 MAX.
On 30th September 2019 the aircraft was flown to Alice Springs for long-term storage to escape Singapore’s humid environment, helping to preserve the aircraft while it could not be used.
Five other SilkAir 737 MAX jets soon joined it, and though it wasn’t foreseen at the time they now share the Alice Springs storage facility with 23 other SIA Group aircraft relocated there due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The FAA recertification
The FAA’s recent lifting of restrictions on the Boeing 737 MAX permitted U.S. operators to plan for re-entry into service for the type, on the basis of mandatory design changes, software upgrades and aircraft tests.
Boeing 737 MAX Return To Service
Additionally, there are recommended pilot training requirements. Each airline must have their pilot training programme approved, prior to the MAX being cleared to fly.
“These actions do not allow the MAX to return immediately to the skies. The FAA must approve 737 MAX pilot training program revisions for each U.S. airline operating the MAX.”FAA
9V-MBA, the first SilkAir Boeing 737 MAX to be flown back to Singapore, completed a 2-hour test flight on Monday from Alice Springs, taking it up to 37,000ft over Australia’s Northern Territory and even over Queensland, before landing back at the same airport around 4.40pm.
This suggests the “operational readiness” flight has been completed, which would pave the way for recertification of the type following approval of the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS).
European regulator EASA plans to clear the MAX to return to service in mid-January 2021, and CAAS typically follows European regulations more closely than U.S. ones, so it could still be some time before the aircraft is flying passengers again for SilkAir or SIA.
In a recent statement to Channel News Asia, CAAS said it was working towards a safe return to service for the MAX in Singapore.
“We will need to be assured that all aspects of the safety of Boeing 737 MAX operations have been addressed.”Tay Tiang Guan, CAAS Deputy Director General
The authority went on to say that it might add its own requirements for the MAX to be approved again, so there may still be some work for SilkAir, SIA and Boeing to do before passenger flights from Changi with the type can be restarted.
“We will factor in compliance with the airworthiness directive and any additional requirements that we may impose, before we lift the suspension on Boeing 737 MAX operations.”Tay Tiang Guan, CAAS Deputy Director General
What will the SIA Group do with the MAX?
Singapore Airlines has six Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in its current inventory, ranging from around 2 to 3 years old.
|Registration||Delivered||Last commercial flight||Alice Springs tenure|
|9V-MBA||1 Oct 2017
(age 3.2 yrs)
|11 Mar 2019
|Sep 2019 –
30 Dec 2020
|9V-MBB||7 Nov 2017
(age 3.1 yrs)
|11 Mar 2019
|Oct 2019 –
|9V-MBC||19 Dec 2017
(age 3.0 yrs)
|10 Mar 2019
|Nov 2019 –
|9V-MBD||13 Apr 2018
(age 2.7 yrs)
|12 Mar 2019
|Nov 2019 –
|9V-MBE||4 May 2018
(age 2.7 yrs)
|11 Mar 2019
|Nov 2019 –
|9V-MBF||7 Mar 2019
(age 1.7 yrs)
|11 Mar 2019
|Nov 2019 –
The group has firm orders for 31 more of the type, eight of which have already been built including one (destined to be 9V-MBN) in full SIA livery.
At the recent half-year financial update, Singapore Airlines said it was still in negotiations with Boeing in relation to future aircraft deliveries, though talks with Airbus had been concluded.
“Negotiations with Boeing on aircraft currently on order are at an advanced stage. [The outcome] will help to moderate the aircraft delivery stream in the near term.”Singapore Airlines, November 2020
Note how SIA is not stating that any order cancellations are part of the negotiations at this stage, pointing instead to slowing the tempo of future deliveries (and therefore substantial financial payments for each new jet) in the months and years ahead.
This suggests the group remains wedded to the MAX, and will continue with its plans to introduce the type in SilkAir and ultimately Singapore Airlines.
The type was originally supposed to be the only aircraft moving across from SilkAir to Singapore Airlines as part of a merger between the two carriers, though several Boeing 737-800s will now be the first to do so in the coming months due to the MAX grounding.
The SilkAir MAX aircraft were also due to be fitted with Thompson Aero Vantage seats in Business Class prior to their transfer to SIA, though it’s been confirmed that the first Boeing 737-800 models moving across in early 2021 will retain their original SilkAir cabins.
The acclaimed Thompson Vantage full-flat bed offers maximum passenger comfort whilst maintaining cabin density. An innovative and highly efficient design, the Vantage is adaptable across all Airbus and Boeing single and twin aisle aircraft platforms.Thompson Aero Seating
These seats, which feature an alternating 1-1 / 2-2 layout including solo ‘throne’ positions, are also used by U.S. carrier JetBlue on its Airbus A321s (see our review).
If SIA keeps the MAX cabins the same, you can expect 25% more legroom in Business Class compared to the usual SilkAir seats and additional recline of 12 inches compared to 8 inches, though otherwise the product is similar to that found on the Boeing 737-800s.
SIA’s plans for the MAX could include:
- Returning the aircraft to operation with SilkAir in their current cabin configuration
- Repainting and transferring the aircraft to SIA in their current cabin configuration
- Refitting the aircraft with Thompson flat-bed Business Class seats and transferring them to SIA
The 737 MAX 8 has a range of 3,550 nautical miles, allowing SIA to potentially use it on flights as long as Singapore – Adelaide and Singapore – Tokyo.
It has also not been revealed which ex-SilkAir routes will move across to Singapore Airlines first when the initial Boeing 737-800s are transferred to the mainline carrier, or whether those will instead initially be deployed on some of SIA’s existing services, let alone what the MAX might be used for.
However, operating these far cheaper narrow-body aircraft could be an ideal opportunity for SIA to ‘right size’ operation on some of its own regional routes, especially while demand remains low due to COVID-19.
“The integration of SilkAir into SIA will also deliver greater economies of scale for the Group, and allow it to deploy the right aircraft to meet the demand for air travel as it returns.”Singapore Airlines, FY20-21 Q1 Results Announcement
We have reached out to Singapore Airlines with our queries regarding the group’s intentions for the Boeing 737 MAX now that the type is being returned to Singapore, and will provide an update with their response once we receive it.
SIA will need to convince passengers the MAX is safe
One of the major hurdles for airlines bringing the Boeing 737 MAX back into passenger service will be reassuring customers that it’s safe to fly.
Boeing already has a specific microsite outlining the changes made to the aircraft and the return to service process.
While three airlines are already operating the type, notably all of them are currently allowing people to rebook onto different flights for free if they are not comfortable flying on the MAX.
Though we’ve taken every safety measure, we understand you may want to wait to fly on a 737 MAX.American Airlines
Alaska Airlines recently announced it was ordering 23 more brand new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft to join its fleet, bringing its firm orders to 55 of the type. The airline has put together a comprehensive summary for its customers, primarily aimed at addressing why the Boeing 737 MAX is safe to fly.
Alaska will start operating the MAX on passenger flights from March 2021.
American Airlines also has a dedicated page on its website regarding the 737 MAX.
We expect that SilkAir/SIA will consider a similar campaign to reassure customers that the MAX is safe prior to service re-entry with either carrier.
The first SilkAir Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft is returning from long-term storage in Australia to Changi, strongly suggesting there are now plans to reactivate the fleet in some shape or form in 2021.
It’s not known yet whether the MAX will return to service with SilkAir or shift straight across to the SIA mainline operation, nor whether the long-promised Thompson flat-bed Business Class seats will make their way onto the aircraft.
One thing’s for sure – 9V-MBA is unlikely to the a one-off. The process of preparing and returning all six of SilkAir’s 737 MAX aircraft now appears to be underway, and these aircraft are therefore likely to join the fleet in one way or another over the coming year.
Once we have further updates around SIA’s plans for the MAX aircraft, including prospective return to service timelines and routes, we’ll be sure to share them with you.
(Cover Photo: Marcus Mainka / Shutterstock)