Behind the scenes: American’s first Boeing 737 MAX demo flight

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Wednesday marked a major milestone for American Airlines and the Boeing 737 MAX.

The Fort Worth-based carrier returned the troubled jet to the skies, with a mix of about 95 high-ranking employees and journalists flying on the MAX’s first public flight since its grounding more than 20 months ago.

Passengers were flown on a round trip from Dallas (DFW) to Tulsa (TUL), where American has its largest maintenance facility. Now that the MAX been recertified by the FAA, the airline has started to perform the required safety updates and pilot retraining. As such, the carrier had its top pilots and maintenance technicians waiting in Tulsa to speak with media about how the carrier plans to safely return the jet to service.

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The “show-and-tell” demo trip was designed, in part, as a way for American to convince flyers that the jet is actually safe to fly. It comes almost two years since the second of two accidents that took a combined 346 lives and the subsequent recertification process that dragged on for 20 months and ended on Nov. 18.

Wednesday’s event began at a charter pad a few miles northwest of the passenger terminals at American’s megahub in Dallas/Fort Worth.

Invited guests began lining up in the open-air parking lot at around 8:30 a.m. local time. After milling around for a bit — employees, in particular, were visibly excited about the plane’s return to service — American ground staff welcomed the attendees onboard N308RD, a two-year-old Boeing 737 MAX 8.

Four of American’s longest-serving flight attendants stood ready to greet the crowd. At the door, seat assignments were confirmed — leadership from American’s pilot and flight attendant unions sat in the 16-seat first-class cabin.

Media was assigned the extra-legroom Main Cabin Extra seats, while the carrier’s rank-and-file employees on the flight occupied the regular coach section.

Though American isn’t capping capacity as an anti-coronavirus measure on its regularly scheduled flights, the roughly 55% load factor on the demo flight meant that most middle seats remained empty.

Waiting at every seat was a printed agenda with the day’s schedule, as well as a directory of the cockpit and cabin crew staffing the flight. There was also a one-time use free Wi-Fi code for guests to access the ViaSat network when inflight.

Once everyone was seated — which took a while as some passengers (like myself) were busy taking pictures and recording video — Capt. Pete Gamble came on the intercom to welcome everyone aboard.

Capt. Gamble’s message was profound. He stated that “aviation is built around a chain of safety. When it breaks, it’s up to those of us in the industry to mend it and bring it back.”

Then the crew performed a manual safety demonstration. After all, American’s MAXes don’t feature seat-back entertainment screens.

Frenzied media quickly plugged in their devices, connected to Wi-Fi and started filing stories and uploading photos and quick-takes to Twitter and Instagram.

The milestone MAX flight carrying members of the public taxied out to south-facing Runway 18L, just minutes after pushing back from the remote stand.

Our takeoff roll was smooth — no different than the one I experienced the day before on a flight from Los Angeles to Dallas.

Once airborne, Gamble took to the public-address system for a second welcome message, this time informing us that we had just about 30 minutes of flying before reaching Tulsa.

When the seat belt sign “dinged,” media on the flight wasted little time springing into action. Television cameras got in position and anchors began reciting their lines from memory.

American Airlines’ employees chatted with one another, catching up on the latest news and retelling highlights from the Thanksgiving weekend.

Before the jet’s grounding, the lavatories on American’s MAX received quite a bit of (negative) press. After all, they’re some of the smallest in the air. Plus, the doors of the two rear bathrooms opened outwards, and they sometimes hit each other.

Though American isn’t resizing the lavatories, the carrier has fixed the door issue. Now, the port side lav has a bi-fold door that doesn’t restrict movement in the aisle. The carrier confirmed to TPG that it’s planning to deploy this fix across its entire fleet of MAXes — 24 for now, a number that will grow once deliveries from Boeing resume.

The crew came through the cabin to provide American’s COVID-era service.

Flyers received a paper bag emblazoned with the AA logo and a “welcome aboard” message. The contents included a small bottle of water, Biscoff cookie and a sanitizing wipe.

People were clearly hungry; many briefly lowered their masks to partake in the snack service. Before long, the double chime was played, indicating that we’d crossed through 10,000 feet on our descent to Tulsa.

Flyers quickly returned to their seats, fastened their seatbelts and turned their cameras to the windows: the airport was in sight.

A few minutes thereafter, we had an incredibly smooth landing on Runway 18L.

Some flyers clapped, others didn’t.

Moments later, we pulled up to American’s Boeing 737 Center of Excellence maintenance facility. The engines cut and passengers deplaned via airstairs, marking the end of the jet’s first public flight.

Aside from the camera flashes and the fact that it was the first public MAX flight in 20 months, American Flight 9750 was no different than an average domestic hop. And that’s exactly the point American was hoping to make.

The mundanity of this demo flight is likely the best outcome AA could’ve hoped for; it’s the first step in American’s effort to convince the public that flying the MAX is no different than any other narrow-body plane.

Yet the carrier still has an uphill battle, as worried passengers — up to 25% of flyers according to Southwest — will likely try avoiding the plane.

Nonetheless, Wednesday’s mission was a big step in the right direction for American as it tries to show flyers that the MAX is ready to take to the skies.

All photos by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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