The first commercial flight in almost four years to be operated by a Boeing 737 MAX in China took to the skies on Friday, January 13—a significant step in the aviation giant’s attempts to regain control in the market.
Chinese authorities initially grounded the bestselling Boeing aircraft in March 2019 following two 737 MAX crashes in quick succession—the first in Indonesia in 2018 and then again in Ethiopia in early 2019.
Aviation authorities in China claimed the need for ‘strict control of safety risks’ forced them to keep the plane grounded.
The aircraft was also grounded in many countries worldwide following the fatal accidents, although it largely returned to service in late 2020. However, Chinese authorities continued to block the use of the aircraft on domestic, commercial flights.
But according to the flight tracking website Flightradar24, a Boeing 737 MAX 8 took off from Guangzhou on Friday at 12:45 PM local time and landed at Zhengzhou—the first commercial flight to use that particular aircraft in China in nearly four years.
The flight was operated by Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines, which runs a gigantic fleet of 650 planes, of which 24 are Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes (and only three are in active service).
China Southern initially planned to resume flights with the Boeing 737 MAX 8 in October 2022 but didn’t use it for any of its scheduled flights until now. That same month, however, foreign airlines began flying into China with the 737 MAX when the Chinese authorities were tentatively loosening restrictions.
China Southern is currently the largest customer in Chinese for the Boeing 737 MAX, with 24 of its total order of 50 planes having been delivered. China Southern’s 737 MAX fleet makes up over a third of all the MAX planes in China, with Chinese airlines having 97 of the narrowbody jets between them.
The size of these fleets is set to grow significantly, too, with Boeing stating in October that a further 138 planes were waiting to be delivered to Chinese carriers.
But with China’s aviation market still volatile in the face of rising COVID cases in the country and returning restrictions, Boeing said it wasn’t holding its breath in the hope of delivering new aircraft to China.
Jason Gursky, an equity research analyst at global investment bank Citi, said, “Boeing suggested at its November 2022 investor day that its long-term financial targets do not contemplate deliveries of new aircraft into China.”
“Since the grounding of MAX aircraft in 2019, Airbus has overtaken Boeing as the dominant manufacturer in China—the world’s second-largest aviation industry. Last year, Airbus delivered more than 100 aircraft to Chinese airlines, while Boeing delivered just eight,” Gursky said.
According to the analyst, with the 737 MAX back in service in China, “it means the aircraft is now back operating in every major market in the world. The U.S.-based manufacturer now hopes it can regain some of the control it has lost in the Chinese market over the last few years.”