An Air China Boeing 737 MAX jet parked at the American plane maker’s completion and delivery center in Zhoushan, near Shanghai. Photo: Handout

Boeing’s 737 Max airliner is poised to return to Chinese skies for the first time in two and a half years, marking a possible upside in the two sides’ free-falling trade relations. 

A new 737 Max test plane with redesigned controls and maneuvering systems departed Seattle early this week.

On Wednesday, it was seen flying a short, predetermined route between Shanghai’s Pudong International Airport, its point of entry into China, and Zhoushan, the site of the American planemaker’s completion and delivery center. 

However, Boeing will still need to navigate red tape and a regulatory labyrinth to recertify the accident-prone plane in its largest overseas market. 

In March 2019, China’s civil aviation authority preempted its Western peers and clipped the wings of the ill-fated narrow-body twinjet in the wake of two crashes involving Lion Air in Indonesia and Ethiopian Airlines. 

Boeing has gone the extra mile by flying the latest test plane, bearing the registration number N7201S with reconfigured Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System and other safety modifications, all the way to Shanghai and Zhoushan.

This was done for the convenience of the Civil Aviation Administration of China’s (CAAC) evaluation, rather than the usual arrangement of test flights at its Everett base near Seattle.

Undaunted by China’s travel restrictions and strict quarantine protocols, Boeing’s chief pilot, accompanied by a squadron of technicians and Federal Aviation Authority officials, also flew on the test plane, according to Chinese media reports.

A 737 Max test plane at Zhoushan Putuo Airport on Wednesday. The airport shares a runway with the nearby Boeing completion center. Photo: WeChat

The CAAC is taking its time to approve the Max despite granting entry to the plane, with CAAC president Feng Zhenglin reportedly setting out key parameters for airworthiness recertification.

These include thorough training for Chinese pilots and crews and exhaustive investigations into the cause of the two previous crashes. The CAAC is also reportedly requiring “foolproof remedies” to the plane’s past problems, including with its automated navigation system.

Feng revealed that Boeing CEO David Calhoun had contacted him three times about resuming the plane’s use in China. Calhoun had previously briefed shareholders on the prospect of the 737 Max returning to Chinese skies within this year.

Revamped to guarantee absolute manual control to override any mechanical intervention or takeover in any situation, the 737 Max has already been cleared to resume flights by American, Canadian, European and Brazilian aviation regulators. 

Chinese carriers have grounded as many as 97 737 Max jets while related losses and aircraft storage maintenance costs reportedly burn through their cash reserves.

The plane’s recertification in China, although a lengthy process, could soon lift their earnings prospects, especially for companies that rely on all-Boeing fleets like Xiamen Airlines and Shandong Airlines. 

The first 737 Max jet was delivered in Zhoushan to Air China in December 2018. Photo: Handout

The return of the 737 Max to Zhoushan also means the sprawling Boeing factory there, commissioned in 2018 as a key pillar for the local economy, may soon be resurrected. 

The 737 Max completion plant, the first such Boeing manufacturing facility outside of the United States, is situated close to major urban centers like Shanghai and Ningbo for easy access to amenities and logistical support for American and local staff of more than 300. 

The facility installs cabin interiors, seats and toilets on sub-assembled planes made in Seattle. It also handles repair and maintenance and training for pilots. The completion center is a joint venture with the state-owned Commercial Aircraft Corp of China (Comac). 

The plant’s location on the archipelago city of Zhoushan was chosen because of its proximity to Shanghai, one of China’s largest international aviation hubs and home to Comac, China Eastern Airlines and China’s largest budget carrier Spring Airlines. Boeing will reportedly aim to sell more 737 Max planes to all those airlines.

A tail wing bearing the Boeing logo inside a hanger in Zhoushan. Photo: Handout
Boeing’s plant in China has been sitting idle after the 737 Max’s grounding in the country in March 2019. Photos: WeChat

Before the 737 Max’s grounding, Chinese airlines purchased about one-fourth of its global deliveries. But the 40-hectare facility, earlier dubbed as “Boeing city” with a designed capacity of 100 deliveries per year, has been sitting idle since 2019.

The hotel, international kindergarten and school built for American expats in the city are also sitting empty. 

There is thus a lot riding on the CAAC making a quick decision. Cadres from Zhoushan and Zhejiang, the eastern province that has jurisdiction over Zhoushan, have reportedly lobbied the CAAC for a swift recertification approval. They have joined calls from Chinese airlines to get the 737 Max airborne in the face of emerging capacity constraints. 

China Southern Airlines President Ma Xulun told Xinhua last month that “key assets should not be frozen indefinitely”, especially while the aviation industry was recovering from the Covid crisis. China Southern and its subsidiaries have 34 737 Max jets grounded.  

China Southern, China Eastern and Air China have also launched a joint bid to seek compensation from Boeing for the 737 Max’s grounding. They have cited a report from the China Air Transport Association that claims the combined losses and expenses could amount to 4 billion yuan (US$617 million).

Boeing has reportedly insisted in response that it will only offer discounts for new purchases, according to reports. Meanwhile, more than 600 of 1,200 Chinese netizens recently polled by news portal NetEase said they would check the type of aircraft before booking flights and would avoid flying on the 737 Max.

Less than 400 of the respondents said they have full confidence in the American plane.