China is reportedly a step closer to returning the Boeing 737 Max to service, after grounding the type for more than two years following two fatal crashes. 

A Bloomberg report on 9 July, citing unnamed sources, states that Chinese officials have “signalled” their openness to recertificate the type, after a lengthy grounding. 

Details of a validation flight are being worked out, the report adds, and Boeing is looking to send a team of 35 pilots and engineers to China in late July. 

The move — the first step in what could be long recertification process — marks a shift in China’s stance towards the narrowbody. The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) was the first in the world to ground the 737 Max following a fatal crash in Ethiopia in March 2019. 

China is Boeing’s largest overseas market, and its carriers have ordered — or are operating — a significant number of 737 Max aircraft. Cirium fleets data indicates Chinese carriers have 97 737 Max aircraft in storage, and more than 200 on order.

As recently as March, the CAAC said it was yet to be satisfied to the extent necessary to advance the type’s return to operation. 

China has set out three conditions for return-to-service of the Max: the aircraft must be cleared as airworthy, pilots must be fully retrained, and clear conclusions must be drawn from the two accidents that preceded the grounding.

China’s largest carriers have also indicated in recent months that they do not expect to take any 737 Max deliveries at least until 2023, providing a possible indication of how the type’s ungrounding could pan out. 

Underpinning China’s reticence in returning the 737 Max to service is the frosty relationship between China and the US. While it is unclear if the tensions are behind the lengthy return-to-service timeline, the impact of geopolitical concerns on China’s treatment of the 737 Max have been mooted for sometime. 

In June, Boeing chief Dave Calhoun reiterated calls for the US government to normalise trade relations with China, a market which its says holds a vast portion of historic and potential aircraft sales.

Major economies globally have already returned the 737 Max to service, including the US, European Union and Canada. In Asia-Pacific, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji are the only nations to have lifted the type’s so far.