New York (AFP)

Boeing could take crucial step next week to return to service its flagship 737 MAX with scheduled flight tests for certification expected "early next week," two sources said. close to the case.

"We should know more about the schedule later today (Friday) or over the weekend," one of the sources, who requested anonymity, told AFP.

The 737 MAX has been grounded since March 13, 2019 after the accident of a copy of the Ethiopian Airlines company that left 157 dead. This tragedy came just months after the Lion Air MAX disaster, which killed 189 people.

The disturbing similarities between the two fatal accidents, shortly after takeoff, with an inability of the pilots to regain control of the aircraft, had led aviation safety authorities around the world to ban the entire fleet from flying. an indefinite period.

For months, the American aeronautical giant has been struggling to return to service its medium-haul, whose sales were before this crisis its main source of income.

The MCAS anti-stall software was implicated in the two accidents. However, other technical malfunctions, including one concerning electrical wiring, were subsequently detected during work on modifications to the device, slowing down the recertification process.

For weeks, the aircraft manufacturer has been waiting for the green light from the authorities to prove with test flights that the modifications carried out provide maximum safety.

"The team is progressing towards FAA certified flights in the near future," said a spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the US regulator.

He said the authority was "currently examining Boeing documentation to determine if the company has met the requirements to proceed to the next stage of the assessment", that is, the flight tests.

"We will only carry out certification flights after being satisfied with this data," he insisted.

Civil aviation authorities can only approve the modified version of the aircraft after examining how the aircraft behaves in flight. They will also examine the thousands of data collected during these flights.

Boeing expected a few months ago that the MAX would return to service in mid-2020, that is, in June.

- Survival -

But the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in travel restrictions and the confinement of workers, came to thwart his schedule.

According to the Seattle Times, European and Canadian aviation safety authorities have also demanded "further substantial changes to the flight control system".

"However, regulators have agreed that Boeing will be required to make these additional design changes (...) only after the MAX is returned to service," the American newspaper wrote.

Asked by AFP about this information, a spokesman for Boeing assured that safety was "the top priority" of the group.

"We are committed to answering all questions from regulators and meeting all certification and regulatory requirements," he added.

According to him, when it is put back into service, the 737 MAX will be "one of the safest planes of all time".

For Boeing, it is urgent to fly his plane to get out of a historic crisis.

This aircraft represents more than two thirds of its order book. It is therefore central to the medium-term survival of the aircraft manufacturer, which, like all air transport, is also suffering from the crisis caused by the new coronavirus.

At the end of April, it announced the reduction of 10% of its workforce, or 16,000 jobs. S&P had immediately downgraded its financial strength rating from A- to BBB, now relegating it to a notch in the speculative category.

Additional fixes required by foreign authorities could add substantial costs to the MAX program.

They could also slow the ramp-up in deliveries that Boeing needs to replenish its cash flow.

© 2020 AFP