US pilots who have tested the new Boeing 737 MAX flight-control software have given it positive reviews and some carriers are beginning to finalize step-by-step MAX return-to-service plans, suggesting that Boeing’s notional timeline of getting FAA approval by year-end may come to fruition.

American Airlines and Southwest Airlines were among about a dozen carriers that participated in a MAX full-flight simulator session in Miami recently. “For the first time, we were able to get into a full-motion, full-flight MAX simulator,” said Greg Bowen, a Southwest captain and the Southwest Pilots Association (SWAPA) training and standards chair.

Speaking at SWAPA’s International Conference of Pilots Unions, Bowen said the pilots reviewed both the original and modified versions of the MAX’s maneuvering characteristics augmentation system (MCAS) flight-control law software, as well as procedures involving manual trim and other flight-control computer changes.

Bowen said the updated MCAS performs its intended role—automatic horizontal stabilizer nose-down inputs to augment stability in certain high angle-of-attack (AOA) situations—“even better” than the original system. This after Boeing significantly modified the MCAS logic in response to preliminary findings from two fatal MAX accident investigations in which the system, triggered by faulty AOA data inputs, activated when it wasn’t needed and led to fatal dives. “The hazard is being designed out of it,” he said.

The Boeing sessions matched 737 pilots from different airlines as crew pairs. Participants included at least American one pilot with no previous MAX experience, said John DeLeeuw, an American captain and the airline’s senior manager of flight safety. “I think he was pretty happy with the training.”

Bowen emphasized that pilots did not review all of the new training material Boeing is preparing as part of the changes. The FAA and Boeing are still working on some aspects, including at least six non-normal checklists that may require changes either because of the MAX updates or re-thinking of how pilots should tackle certain scenarios, Bowen said.

The FAA will set baseline training, but many airlines are expected to customize it. DeLeeuw said he expects American’s final training package to include two hours of “technical” training plus some instruction on the “social aspect,” such as helping pilots respond to passenger inquiries on the MAX’s safety.

Southwest pilots are reviewing MAX transition training now, Bowen said. The package is Southwest’s “best guess” on what the final package will contain and will be updated once the training is finalized. “It’s a good refresher for our pilots to get back in the MAX mindset,” he said.

The carrier’s return-to-service plan will focus on taking delivery of some 40 aircraft Boeing has built but not delivered, Bowen said. Then, it will work on getting the 34 MAXs it had when the fleet was grounded out of storage. Boeing halted deliveries just after the 385-aircraft fleet was grounded in mid-March, days after the Mar. 10 crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302. It was the second fatal MAX accident in less than five months, following the Oct. 29, 2018, crash of Lion Air Flight 610.

American is preparing to ferry two of its stored MAXs from Roswell, New Mexico to its Tulsa, Oklahoma maintenance base to evaluate their conditions, DeLeeuw said.

“This will give us a chance to have an idea of what we are looking at,” he explained, adding that eliminating service disruptions on the MAX—no matter how minor the reason—will be key to a smooth re-introduction of the fleet. “We want to make sure we get it right.”

Boeing is finalizing the MAX changes and training updates. Its next step is to present a final package to the FAA; the agency is expected to take at least a month to review it. Once the US regulator signs off—FAA officials insist they have no timeline—it will issue an airworthiness directive (AD) mandating the changes each MAX needs.

Bowen said he expects Southwest to need at least 30 days from the AD until the first aircraft is ready to return. Southwest calculates each MAX will need an average of 200 man-hours to go from storage to the flight line—only about 2 hrs. of which is installing the new software.

Sean Broderick,