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Boeing’s 737 Max gets approval to fly passengers again

VICTORVILLE, CA - MARCH 31: Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 MAX airliners sit at the Southern Logistics Airport on March 31, 2020, in Victorville, CA. Southwest Airlines had to temporarily store all of its 737 MAX fleet due to the worldwide grounding order as a result of a faulty automated flight control system which is suspected to have contributed to the types crashes in Ethiopia and Indonesia that killed 346 people. (Photo by Barry Ambrose/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

    (CNN) — The Federal Aviation Administration issued an order Wednesday that paved the way for the troubled Boeing 737 Max to carry passengers again, ending the jet’s 20-month grounding.

The plane, the best-selling jet in Boeing’s fleet, was grounded in March 2019 after two fatal crashes that killed 346 people. It was discovered that a safety feature meant to stop the plane from climbing too fast and stalling had improperly forced the nose of the plane down, causing the crashes.

The process of approving the plane to carry passengers has stretched on far longer than originally expected and cost Boeing more than $20 billion, according to the company. Lost orders for the jet during that time could make it among the most expensive mistakes ever made by a company.

Although approval was expected this week, Boeing shares nonetheless rose 5% in premarket trading Wednesday.

The FAA action is only the first step in allowing 59 airlines which own the 387 grounded planes to fly them as part of their schedule. The FAA said in a statement before any of the planes can be flown with passengers again, the necessary changes to the 737 Max identified in the approval process must be installed, the FAA must inspect the individual planes. The pilots must also complete additional training.

That process is expected to take between a few weeks and a few months, depending on the airline. So far only American Airlines has added the plane to its schedule for a handful of flights between Miami and New York in late December and early January. Other airlines are holding off. Southwest, which has 34 of the jets — more than any other airline — isn’t expected to fly passengers on the 737 Max until spring of 2021.

Some of the family members of those who died in the crashes have objected to the return to service for the plane. They say Boeing made mistakes in the design of the 737 Max, the newest version of a long-serving plane, which made their version dangerous, and the FAA made mistakes approving the original version and recertifying it to fly now.

“The plane is inherently unstable and it is unairworthy without its software,” said Michael Stumo, whose daughter Samaya Rose Stumo died in the March 2019 crash of an Ethiopian Airlines plane. “They haven’t fixed it so far. The flying public should avoid the Max in the future. Change your flight.”

Stumo and other family members had a press conference Tuesday ahead of the announcement. Stumo said the FAA should have insisted on a third sensor be added to determine if the plane is in danger of stalling. He said other changes should have been made to the way pilots are alerted if there is a problem.

“We as family members want to avoid a third crash,” he said.

The investigation into how to fix the plane was originally expected to be finished by the fall of 2019, but stretched on as new questions about the plane arose. In addition to coming up with a software update to the faulty safety system, problems with the safety of the plane’s wiring were discovered. There were also questions about the lack of training for pilots who were moving from the original 737 to the 737 Max, which had been a selling point for the plane.

The investigation also revealed that many Boeing employees were privately expressing doubts about the planes during the original approval process.

“Would you put your family on a Max simulator trained aircraft? I wouldn’t,” wrote one employee to another during the process in an internal communication revealed during the process. Another employee described the plane as “designed by clowns, who in turn are supervised by monkeys.” And another comment added: “piss poor design.”

— CNN’s Pete Muntean and Gregory Wallace contributed to this report

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