China Southern Airlines has become the first Chinese carrier to operate a passenger flight on the disgraced Boeing 737 MAX since the model was discontinued nearly four years ago. The airline's two reactivated Boeing 737 MAX 8s took off from their hub at Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (CAN) on Friday. One headed to Zhengzhou Xinzheng International Airport (CGO) and the other — to the notorious Wuhan Tianhe International Airport (WUH).
Flight CZ3960 from Guangzhou to Zhengzhou was the first to take to the skies at 12:45 local time. According to FlightRadar, the flight was operated by a B-1206 that was delivered to China Southern Airlines in November 2017. This was followed shortly by flight CZ8276 from Guangzhou to Wuhan, which departed at 14:26. The aircraft operating this flight, a B-1127, entered the carrier's fleet in September 2018.
China was the first country to land a Boeing 737 MAX in March 2019 after the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines crashes that killed a total of 346 people. In December 2021, the authorities actually approved the return of the aircraft to service, but Chinese airlines have so far preferred to delay this moment, in part due to the ongoing tense trade relations between the US and China.
However, due to the recent reopening of borders and the upcoming Lunar New Year holidays, Chinese airlines have to meet a significant surge in demand for both domestic and international air travel. This is what brought MAX back into the schedule.
In October 2022, MIAT Mongolian Airlines became the first airline to fly into China after landing on a 737 MAX. Boeing was scheduled to operate a number of flights for China Southern Airlines, but its re-commissioning was once again delayed, putting the aircraft's future in China in doubt.
The fact that flights have already taken place will no doubt be a significant boost for Boeing. China is a major customer of the American manufacturer — in the years leading up to the suspension, Chinese airlines purchased roughly one in three Boeing 737 MAX aircraft. While there have been no new aircraft since the cut to China, Boeing predicts that Chinese airlines will need more than 8,000 new aircraft over the next 20 years if they are to meet passenger demand.
Skeptics, however, say that while today's flight marks a significant step forward for Boeing, its recovery in China still faces a number of hurdles. During the suspension, several major customers such as Xiamen Airlines have abandoned Boeing and placed significant orders with rival manufacturer Airbus. China has also started deliveries of its own Boeing 737 MAX competitor – COMAC C919. China Eastern Airlines became a launch customer when it took delivery of the first aircraft in December 2022.
China Southern Airlines has 24 Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft in its fleet and expects delivery of 44 more. Each of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 airlines accommodates 178 passengers in a three-class configuration — 150 in economy class, 24 in premium economy and four in business class.
Currently, China Southern Airlines remains the only Chinese carrier operating regular Boeing 737 MAX flights. Other airlines that have these aircraft in their fleet, — Air China (16) and China Eastern Airlines (7) — it has not yet been announced if the planes will return to service and when.