CNN  — 

With over 4,800 gross orders, the 737 MAX is the best-selling commercial aircraft in Boeing history.

It’s 15% more fuel efficient than its predecessor, much more climate friendly and has an average dispatch reliability rate of 99.4%.

With 387 in service around the world, it didn’t get more mundane than flying the workhorse 737 MAX. And in the eyes of all customers and all the stakeholders, that was a good thing.

That was until two deadly crashes in 2018 and 2019 claimed 346 lives, leaving the fabled US plane-maker and FAA regulator’s reputations in tatters.

This catastrophe has cost Boeing $20 billion and its operators untold millions of dollars in losses.

“The 737 MAX accounts for 40% of Boeing’s profits,” said Scott Hamilton of Leeham News and Analysis. “It will take the rest of the decade for Boeing to repair its balance sheet, at least.”

Boeing has paid out millions and millions of dollars in compensation to its airline clients.

American Airlines alone, which has 100 MAXs on order and 24 already in the fleet, used $30 million of its compensation toward a 2019 employee profit sharing fund. This compares to the approximate $60 million cost per airplane.

A Boeing spokesperson acknowledged the toll this has taken on the order book: “In 2019, there were 117 MAX cancellations. (75 of these were related to a customer bankruptcy.) This year through October 31, 2020, there have been 448 cancellations.”

The flight deck of a 737 MAX at American's Tulsa Maintenance Base undergoing reactivation into service

Now, after a 20-month global grounding which began in the US on March 13, 2019, American Airlines (AA) is the first carrier in the world to return the beleaguered but recently FAA re-certified Boeing 737 MAX to the skies.

CNN Travel was invited to a media briefing at the airline’s Tulsa Maintenance Base in Oklahoma, where all 24 currently delivered aircraft are undergoing re-work and re-activation to service following their mandatory record hibernation.

“(During that period) the MAX was maintained even more frequently than if it was flying,” an American Tech Ops employee told us. “We powered up and ran them every 10 days.”

Our day began with a short charter flight onboard a 737 MAX from a Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport charter pad to the Tulsa Maintenance base.

Apart from a press cohort of 140 passengers, the flight felt remarkably routine and uneventful (except that everyone was masked due to Covid-19) – and that was the point.

The theme of safety was predominant.

“Aviation is a chain of safety,” AA Captain Peter Gamble announced. “The links in the chain are stronger than ever before.”

American Airlines conducted a demo flight on December 2 in advance of the 737 MAX's return to service later this month.

“Our goal is to return the aircraft safely to service not just for American but the entire industry,” said Captain John DeLeeuw of AA’s Ad Hoc Return-to-Service Committee, clearly understanding the gravity of their responsibility.

Erik Olund, the head of American’s Tulsa TechOps leader base, affirmed: “All 5,000 of us in Tulsa are behind it.”

But it was not lost on anyone that this design and culture failure was a tragedy.

“We can’t change the loss of 346 souls, but we can honor them (by making the aircraft safe),” added Olund.

Upon arrival into Tulsa, we observed the 737 MAX fleet spread out all over the airfield, where the aircraft were lying in wait for their turn to be readied to return to the skies.

Roger Steele of AA TechOps noted that it will take six to eight days for each aircraft to go through the necessary FAA directives to be certified to fly again, including MCAS software updates (which take six hours) and the rewiring of certain flight control systems.

Following the engineering reworks, each aircraft is put through a two-hour Operational Readiness Flight (ORF) with particular emphasis on testing the aircraft’s MCAS software updates and runaway trim, a malfunction that occurs when the Trimmable Horizontal Stabilizer on the aircraft tail fails to stop at the selected position and continues to deflect the pitch of the aircraft up or down.

The timeline for the first group of 24 MAXs to be re-certified is by the end of January 2021.

The next challenge: Reassuring travelers

For American Airlines, Boeing and the FAA, the stakes – and the scrutiny – couldn’t be higher. All eyes of the industry are on this trio, whose fates are so intertwined. The recovery from the abyss will be slow and done in phases.

In the last full month the MAX flew before it was grounded, it operated 25,391 flights, according to Cirium Research.

For its first full month of re-entry into service in January 2021, indicates Cirum’s data, AA has only filed 170 MAX flights. Its return to service will commence with one daily round-trip flight between Miami and New York LaGuardia on December 29th, with five to six aircraft in service ramping up to 36 flights per month in January 2021, adding New York JFK and Washington DCA.

US airlines Southwest, United and Alaska won’t operate their MAX’s until later in 2021. And currently, the plane is only certified to fly within the US, though the European EASA, Canada Transport and Brazilian regulatory agencies are expected to re-certify it soon.

An American Airlines 737 Max on the runway in Tulsa on December 2, 2020.

AA placed the very first order for the aircraft and will be first to return it to the skies, but that wasn’t intentional.

“We didn’t intend to be first to put the Max back in the air. But the only way to truly build confidence is by flying it. You don’t build that back by sitting on the ground,” said American Airlines COO David Seymour.

There has been talk about re-branding the MAX, but AA has opted for maximum transparency and is doubling down on its belief in the plane.

Still, not every passenger will be ready to fly on a MAX.

AA, along with other airlines, is being transparent by alerting passengers that they are traveling on a MAX and will give them the option to change their flight or get a refund if they’re not comfortable.

“We will be transparent and flexible to win customers’ trust. If a customer doesn’t want to fly on a MAX, they don’t have to,” said Seymour.

With over 800 MAXs scattered around the world in suspended animation, this is no easy task.

The MAX returns to an industry and a world very different than the one it left when it was grounded – both decimated by a worldwide pandemic.

American has invested over 64,000 man hours in storing, maintaining and readying its planes for the crucial return-to-service. Returning the MAX was always going to be daunting, but Covid has exponentially magnified that.

Global passenger traffic has plummeted and industry losses in 2020 alone are expected to exceed $85 billion in the worst crisis the industry has ever known.

Over 70 individual airlines around the world operate the MAX. They now face the daunting goal of convincing a wary public, many afraid of flying during a pandemic to begin with, to feel comfortable traveling in it again.

“We’ve left nothing to chance”

American Airlines hosted an event on Wednesday to showcase its 737 MAX aircraft ahead of their return to scheduled AA service.

Training for AA’s 2,700 737 MAX line pilots began in early December, with the goal of having them all trained by the end of March.

The pilots are subjected to classroom and two-hour simulator sessions, with handling runaway stabilizer trim and MCAS scenarios at the top of the list.

“If our pilots and safety teams are confident the plane is safe, we are confident,” said Seymour.

Steele of AA TechOps was asked if he’d put his mother on the plane, to which he responded: “Yes. I already have.”

Ken Kagal of AA Tech Ops echoed the team’s confidence in the MAX: “We’ve left nothing to chance.”

The MAX is now the most heavily scrutinized aircraft in history, and many say the safest. But will that be enough?

“Ultimately the MAX will recover,” said airline industry analyst R.W. Mann.

“Having said that, there is clearly trust to be regained – regulatory, airline, equipment, operations. But trust won’t be enough, it must be verified in day-to-day operations, and in the future via renewed focus on design, man-machine interface and training.”