By Tracy Rucinski and David Shepardson
CHICAGO/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Teams from the three U.S. airlines that own 737 MAX jets were heading to Boeing Co’s factory in Renton, Washington, to review a software upgrade on Saturday, even as Southwest Airlines Co began parking its 34 MAXs near the California desert.
The factory visits indicate Boeing may be nearing completion of a planned software patch for its newest 737 following a Lion Air crash that killed 189 people in Indonesia last October, but the timing for a resumption of passenger flights on the jets remains uncertain.
Boeing and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which must approve the software fix and new training, are under U.S. and global scrutiny since the MAX suffered a second deadly crash involving Ethiopian Airlines in Addis Ababa on March 10, which led to a worldwide grounding of the fleet.
The FAA’s acting administrator, Dan Elwell, told lawmakers last week the agency expected Boeing would complete the software upgrade as early as March 25, kicking off the approval process.
It remained unclear whether the software upgrade, called “design changes” by the FAA, will resolve concerns that result from the ongoing investigation into the Ethiopian Airlines crash, which killed all 157 on board.
The FAA’s aviation safety chief, Ali Bahrami, briefed lawmakers on Friday about the latest information from the investigation.
The Allied Pilots Association (APA), which represents American Airlines pilots, said it has been in talks with Boeing, the FAA and airlines to get the airplanes flying again as soon as possible, albeit with an acceptable level of safety.
“Right now we’re in wait-and-see mode to see what Boeing comes up with,” Captain Jason Goldberg, a spokesman for APA, said on Saturday. “We’re hopeful, but at the same time the process can’t be rushed.”
Boeing said on Saturday it was continuing to schedule meetings with all 737 MAX operators.
APA is among a delegation of airline safety experts and pilots set to test Boeing’s software upgrade, meant to change how much authority is given to a new anti-stall system developed for the 737 MAX.
Southwest, the world’s largest operator of the MAX, and United Airlines said they would also review documentation and training associated with Boeing’s updates on Saturday. United has 14 MAXs while American has 24.
Meanwhile, Southwest said it was starting to move its entire MAX fleet to a facility in Victorville, California, at the southwestern edge of the Mojave Desert, to wait out the global grounding.
(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski and David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Brown and David Gregorio)