737 MAX – Is China Closer To Ungrounding The Aircraft?

By Spyros Georgilidakis | July 9, 2021

Aviation authorities in China are working on Boeing 737 MAX flight tests, an indication that they could soon be ungrounding the aircraft.

Reports are emerging that Boeing is in discussions with Chinese authorities, about details of the aircraft’s recertification flight program. The manufacturer is making preparations to send approximately 35 737 MAX pilots and engineers to China. They will meet with aviation regulators late in July. However, they will first need to spend two weeks in quarantine.

737 MAX – Is China Closer To Ungrounding The Aircraft?
Photo: Steve Lynes, CC BY 2.0

The development follows statements from China last March, that they still have concerns about the 737 MAX. Then in June, we saw a de-escalation between the US and EU, over aircraft subsidies. And China featured heavily in this event. This was because officials on both sides of the Atlantic repeated that they needed to come together, to face China. So the fear was that the latter would emerge even less cooperative, when it came to the 737 MAX.

It is very difficult to draw conclusions on what China is doing with the 737 MAX, by making comparisons with aviation authorities elsewhere. Usually, flight testing is one of the last hurdles in the re-certification process. First, the authority must identify what systems it considers problematic and what changes it thinks are necessary. Then the manufacturer can suggest ways to effect these changes.

737 MAX – Is China Closer To Ungrounding The Aircraft?
Image: Boeing

These discussions, simulator work and more discussions can take many months. Boeing crews have travelled to China to discuss the 737 MAX before. However, authorities there maintained that other conditions (like the final reports into the two MAX accidents) were necessary before recertification.

737 MAX – China And Others In Asia

Teal Group’s Richard Aboulafia, a seasoned aerospace industry analyst, had this to say about the Chinese certification of the 737 MAX:

It’s nothing to do with aviation, safety or aviation safety. It is way above our pay grades, way above our heads. It’s geopolitics.”

COMAC C919 Debuts Air Show Performance
Could the C919 be a factor in the certification of the MAX? China says it isn’t. Photo: COMAC

In the past few months, at least 170 countries have allowed the MAX to return to service. However, China has a huge market and a lot of 737 MAX orders from its home airlines. Also, many airlines in neighboring countries want to use the jet to fly into China. Plus, Chinese influence means that many of these countries have a “wait and see” attitude towards the aircraft.

In a recent article, Leeham News pointed out that China may not have as unassailable a position as many think. This is because the country’s aircraft market is expanding its capacity quickly. And as promising as the C919 may be domestically, it can’t enter production soon enough for China to simply keep the 737 MAX on the ground.

737 MAX – Is China Closer To Ungrounding The Aircraft?
Image: Boeing

Finally, we already saw an interesting titbit last month, from annual reports of Chinese airlines. China Southern apparently expects to pick up its first 737 MAX aircraft in 2022. China Eastern don’t expect theirs until 2023. But we can’t know if this information reveals any insight into the goings on in the country. It could easily be little more than accounting entries.

Boeing will not give any clues on the progress of the aircraft’s certification in China. But hopefully, we will hear more on the matter near the end of the month, after these talks begin.


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