Boeing’s 737 MAX is now allowed to fly in most countries, with India recently lifting its MAX ban. Of the countries still to allow the MAX to resume flying, China stands out. China is the biggest aviation market still to let the 737 MAX resume flights.
One big country is lagging others
Following two fatal crashes in six months, airline regulators worldwide grounded the 737 MAX in March 2019. It wasn’t until November 2020 that the US regulator recertified the MAX. While the FAA is influential, most nations have their own safety regulators. Some, for a raft of reasons, took their time giving the MAX the green light.
Among the big airline markets, Brazil was one of the first countries out of the gate. Brazil allowed the MAX to fly again in November 2020. In December, Mexico gave the MAX the thumbs up to start flying again. The following month, in January 2021, both Canada and the EU cleared the MAX to resume flying.
Many smaller countries followed the lead of the larger nations. To date, around 175 countries have recertified the 737 MAX. Getting the MAX back in the air was particularly pertinent if airlines based in a particular country flew the type. But there were some laggards. India only recently fully cleared the 737 MAX to resume flying after initially allowing foreign airlines to fly the MAX in and out of Indian airspace in April.
China continues to lag other countries in recertifying the 737 MAX
Which brings us to China. There are many reasons why China is taking its time recertifying the 737 MAX. Not all of them are related to safety. Last month, a Boeing 737 MAX-7 flew to Shanghai to operate a series of test flights for Chinese regulators. However, according to The Global Times, a Beijing newspaper that many consider the voice of the Chinese Government, successful test flights won’t automatically lead to recertification.
“China’s civil aviation authorities always uphold three principles,” the newspaper quotes Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijia. “First, aircraft alteration must be approved for airworthiness. Second, pilots must be fully and effectively retrained. Third, the conclusion of the investigation of the two fatal accidents must be clear, and the improvement measures effective.”
The three biggest Chinese airlines, China Southern, Air China, and China Eastern, have 737 MAXs. Until recent years, one-quarter of all planes Boeing built went to China. But an ongoing trade war between China and the United States saw Boeing’s deliveries into China dry up. China is also putting a lot of emphasis on supporting homegrown aircraft manufacturer COMAC.
China’s cautious airline safety regulator
While China’s aviation regulator, the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), has continued to work on recertifying the MAX, it is taking its time. Once having a patchy safety record, China has now not recorded a fatal commercial airline accident in over a decade, and the CAAC has grown into an ultra-cautious regulator.
That’s no bad thing, but as noted, there is more at play here than safety. Nonetheless, Boeing’s CEO Dave Calhoun has previously said he expects the 737 MAX back in the air in China by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, China remains the last significant airline market not to recertify the 737 MAX.