Southwest’s chairman and CEO Gary Kelly has outlined plans for the return to service of the carrier’s fleet of B737 Max aircraft.

This week’s Airworthiness Directive by the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has paved the way for the resumption of B737 Max commercial flights, but Kelly said that “There is much work to be done before our Max aircraft will resume service”.

Southwest is currently the largest operator of the B737 Max, with 34 deliveries so far, and has been significantly affected by the worldwide grounding of the aircraft since March 2019, following two fatal crashes which killed 346 people.

In December 2019 the carrier reached an out of court settlement of $125 million with Boeing “based on projected reductions in the airline’s 2019 operating income arising from service disruptions caused by the groundings”.

In a statement Kelly said that Southwest estimates it will resume flights with the B737 Max “no sooner than the second quarter of 2021”, and confirmed that he would fly on the aircraft before the airline returns it to service.

“First and foremost, there is nothing more sacred to me than the Safety of our Customers and Employees,” said Kelly. “If we had a cause for doubt of the safety of our fleet – or any subset of it – simply put, the planes would not fly. That is a moral obligation that I share with my fellow Southwest Family Members who work, fly, and travel with our own families on these aircraft. This is not only our profession, career, and livelihoods—it’s deeply personal to all of us.”

Kelly said that Southwest’s leadership team “has reviewed and expressed confidence in the Max software and training updates following Boeing’s enhancements to the aircraft”, and that he had personally been in contact with Boeing and the FAA regarding the changes.

“Without getting too technical, we understand that Boeing has made changes to the flight control system that now compares input from two angle of attack sensors as opposed to one; the aircraft only responds if data from both sensors agree and only activates once per event; and Pilots always have the ability to override the aircraft’s input.

“These changes have been reviewed and approved by the FAA, and, with these enhancements, I am confident we will be ready to operate the Max in accordance with the FAA’s requirements. I am going to be flying on the Max before we return the aircraft to service—and the same is true for many other Southwest Leaders.

“Before we return the aircraft to customer service, however, every active Southwest Pilot will complete additional FAA-required flight training in one of our nine 737 Max simulators and will complete additional FAA-required computer-based training covering Max procedures. Southwest will also require active Pilots to re-take our original 737 Max 8 computer-based differences training as a refresher to complement the FAA-required training.

“Additionally, Southwest will conduct multiple readiness flights on each of our 34 Max aircraft and complete thousands of hours of work, inspections, and the software updates before any of our Customers board a Southwest 737 Max.”

Southwest has also published a dedicated B737 Max section of its website, with more information and a video explaining the additional pilot training that will take place before the B737 Max returns to service.