Southwest sending team to review Boeing 737 MAX upgrade while parking jets

CHICAGO (Reuters) – Southwest Airlines Co is sending a team to review Boeing Co’s software upgrade for its 737 MAX airplanes, a spokeswoman told Reuters on Friday, even as it prepares to park its 34 MAX jets at a facility near the California desert.

FILE PHOTO: Southwest Airlines Co. Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft sit next to the maintenance area after landing at Midway International Airport in Chicago, Illinois, U.S., March 13, 2019. REUTERS/Kamil Kraczynski/File Photo

Boeing’s signature jet was grounded across the world last week following a deadly Ethiopian Airlines crash near Addis Ababa on March 10, just five months after a Lion Air crash in Indonesia.

Ethiopian and French investigators have pointed to “clear similarities” between the two crashes, which killed 346 people, putting pressure on Boeing and U.S. regulators to come up with an adequate fix. The causes of the crashes are still unknown.

Southwest’s meeting with Boeing on Saturday is a sign that the U.S. manufacturer’s planned software fix is nearing completion, though it still needs regulatory approval.

Dallas, Texas-based Southwest is the largest operator of the 737 MAX in the world with 34 jets, followed by American Airlines Group in the United States with 24 MAX.

American pilots told Reuters on Thursday that they also plan to test Boeing’s software upgrade this weekend in Renton, Washington, where Boeing makes the jets and has two simulators.

Southwest’s delegation includes experts from its technical pilot and training teams who will review documentation and training associated with Boeing’s updated speed trim system, spokeswoman Brandy King said.

Meanwhile, Southwest is preparing to begin moving on Saturday its entire MAX fleet to a facility in Victorville, California, at the southwestern edge of the Mojave Desert.

“The planes being in one place will be more efficient for performing the repetitive maintenance necessary for stationary aircraft, as well as any future software enhancements that need to take place,” King said.

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration must approve Boeing’s software changes as well as new pilot training, a process that could take weeks or longer. Regulators in Europe and Canada have said they will conduct their own reviews of any new systems.

United Airlines, the third U.S. operator of the 737 MAX, did not immediately reply to requests for comment on any planned meetings with Boeing regarding the new software.

Boeing shares have fallen 14 percent since the Ethiopian crash, and every day that its jets are grounded comes at a cost both to the manufacturer and the airlines that purchased them for their more fuel-efficient engines and longer range.

Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Robert Birsel

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