On Friday, a Boeing 737 MAX made its first passenger flight in China in nearly four years, marking a significant milestone in the American planemaker’s efforts to rebuild its business in the world’s second-largest aviation market.
According to flight tracking website FlightRadar24, the China Southern Airlines domestic flight from Guangzhou to Zhengzhou took off at 12:45 p.m. (0445 GMT) on a MAX plane.
The best-selling Boeing model was grounded in March 2019 following fatal crashes in Indonesia and Ethiopia, but will resume global service in late 2020 following aircraft modifications and pilot training.
China is the last major market to resume flying the MAX amid ongoing trade tensions with the US, and the return coincides with a rebound in domestic travel demand following the abandonment of zero-Covid policies.
Foreign airlines began flying the MAX to China in October 2022, indicating that the country that was the first to ground the model following the crashes was relaxing its policies.
The 737 MAX was scheduled to return to commercial service by China Southern in October 2022, but it was not used on the scheduled flights.
There were no comments available from Boeing and China Southern.
According to Cirium data from 2019, Chinese airlines had 97 of the narrowbody planes before they were grounded. China Southern is the model’s largest Chinese customer, with 50 on order and 34 delivered.
Boeing announced in October that it had manufactured another 138 planes for Chinese carriers that were awaiting delivery in the United States. It stated that it had begun remarketing the planes to other carriers because there were no concrete indications that Chinese airlines would accept them in the near future.
China’s domestic aviation market was depressed in 2022 due to sporadic lockdowns intended to suppress Covid-19, but demand is increasing now that Covid controls have been lifted.
According to Citi analyst Jason Gursky, the return of the MAX is the first step for Boeing in normalizing its China operations and may pave the way for new plane deliveries.
“Boeing suggested at its November 2022 investor day that its long-term financial targets do not contemplate deliveries of new aircraft into China,” he said in a note to clients on Wednesday, adding that a change in that situation would make its targets significantly less risky.
Boeing has lagged far behind Airbus in deliveries into the world’s largest aircraft market, owing in large part to the grounding of the MAX.
Boeing delivered eight planes to China in 2022, while Airbus delivered more than 100.
Since 2017, Boeing has been virtually barred from receiving new orders from China, whereas state-owned airlines placed a mega-order for nearly 300 Airbus planes last year.
Both Western manufacturers will also face a new market challenge from the Chinese-made C919 narrowbody jet, which was certified last year but will take time to ramp up production.
(Adapted from ChannelNewsAsia.com)