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Other airlines are keen to get their 737 MAX fleet up in the air, but Southwest seems more at ease. Odd, since they are the largest 737 operator in the world. But there is a crucial factor that may explain their approach.

Even before the FAA ungrounded the MAX, airlines other than Southwest were making plans to reintroduce it quickly. American Airlines planned making employee-only flights within November. Then they want to do limited flights with the aircraft, over the Christmas holidays.

The airline won’t force anyone to use its aircraft, but wishes to reintroduce it as part of a campaign. They will park aircraft in busy terminals, and allow the public to speak to their crews. It will be interesting to see if it works, or if some of the public will be ambivalent.

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Southwest take a very different approach. The airline says they won’t get the aircraft in service before the second quarter of 2021. They reason that there is a lot of work that needs to be done, to get the aircraft back into service.

We already saw the software updates the FAA specified, and the much more time-consuming re-routing of wiring. The bit that people forget is that the aircraft also need to be ‘deconservated’, after so many months in storage. That takes 16 days per aircraft to do! Southwest’s mechanics and engineers are reportedly already working on it. It’s not a new process, so airlines know how to deal with it.

 

Southwest’s Pilot Training

The other matter here is pilot training for the updated aircraft, and this is probably the one that shaped Southwest’s strategy. The airline has stated that they will re-introduce the planes into the fleet when ALL pilots have competed this training. We saw that this training includes sessions in a simulator, which must be a MAX sim.

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Southwest’s timeline of the 2nd quarter of 2021 gives them four to five months from now. This is crucial to their planning. Pilots need regular training sessions every six months, to stay current. The airline’s statements strongly suggest that they will try to incorporate the retraining of many of their pilots, to their recurrency training.

That will save Southwest the time it would take to get the pilots off the line schedule. And that, in turn, saves them some money as well. Since this is happening over the winter, the airline has little to lose in terms of scheduling the aircraft. They will still be ready when the summer rolls in and vaccines are (hopefully) fueling a travel surge.

Except of course that they’ll be losing the 15% efficiency that MAX aircraft have over their NG equivalents. Southwest must have done their homework there, and figured that in the off-season, they’re better off this way. It will be interesting to see how other MAX users respond!