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No simulator time expected for 737 Max return: Southwest

Southwest Airlines does not expect its pilots to undergo simulator training as part of a process to return the Boeing 737 Max to service, as the carrier stresses its aviators are well-equipped to handle a problem that has emerged as a common link between two fatal crashes of the aircraft type.

"We are not hearing that will be a requirement," chief executive Gary Kelly told analysts on an earnings call on 25 April, in response to questions on whether pilots will have to undergo simulator training ahead of the aircraft's return to service.

Kelly says these indications were drawn from discussions the airline has had with several parties, including its pilots union, the US Federal Aviation Administration and Boeing. He stresses that the pilots of Southwest, the largest 737 operator in the world, are "extensively trained".

"Managing the aircraft in a runaway stabiliser scenario is something that we've already covered," says Kelly, saying the airline is "the most experienced 737 operator in the world". Investigations into two crashes of the 737 Max 8 have centered on an aircraft system that might have activated the aircraft stabiliser to push the nose down into a dive.

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Training for 737 pilots transitioning to the 737 Max has emerged as a point of discussion in the scrutiny cast upon Boeing's newest narrowbody following two fatal crashes. Southwest's pilot union had criticised Boeing for not informing operators about the system, the manoeuvring characteristics augmentation system (MCAS), which the union called "ill-designed".

The Southwest Airlines Pilots Association (SWAPA) says it is awaiting the proposed training programme for the software update. "Once we see the final training product from Boeing, we will decide if more training should be given to SWAPA pilots in conjunction with the company. If we and the company disagree, we will do what we think is best for our passengers and the flying public," says SWAPA's president Jon Weaks.

Southwest told FlightGlobal previously it will receive the first of three 737 Max simulators this year, while fellow 737 Max operator American Airlines will receive its first by the end of the year.

Dallas-based Southwest ended the first quarter with a fleet of 753 737 aircraft, including the 34 737 Max 8s that were grounded in March. The airline holds the largest order for the 737 Max that has been publicly announced, with 260 additional aircraft on its orderbook.

When and how the 737 Max will return to service remain unclear. The FAA has to certify the software upgrade from Boeing, which completed test flights earlier this month. If simulator training is required, airlines like Southwest will likely face an additional delay in getting the aircraft back into service.

Southwest, which grounded its 737 Max fleet on 13 March, has pulled the 737 Max from its schedules until 5 August. The airline's chief operating officer Mike Van de Ven says in the event that the aircraft is cleared to return to service before that date, Southwest will utilise its 737 Max 8s as spares to support its operations before resuming normal operations after 5 August.

The 737 Max grounding, along with other difficulties, reduced the airline's net profit by $150 million in the first quarter. While Kelly concedes the airline is "not happy" with the situation, he throws his support behind Boeing, calling the 737 Max 8 "the best narrowbody airplane in the world".

"That will continue to be the case when it returns to service with this software modification," he says.

Southwest has no intentions of reconsidering its status as an all-Boeing operator, says Kelly. The Air Current recently reported that a team of Southwest employees visited Europe to learn more about the operations of the Airbus A220, but executives say the trip was planned prior to the 737 Max grounding and was part of the airline's ordinary course of business to learn more about aircraft types.

Calling the timing of the trip "unfortunate", Kelly says, "We were not trying to send any message whatsoever… there is no plan to do anything other than grow our fleet with the Max."

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