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China approves Boeing's 737 Max to fly again

An airworthiness directive issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China orders airlines to make changes to the plane before passenger flights can resume.

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Air China takes delivery of a 737 Max in 2018.

Getty Images

China's aviation safety agency on Thursday cleared the way for Boeing's 737 Max aircraft to return to commercial service, more than three years after the first of two crashes that killed a combined total of 346 people, and almost a year after the plane returned to the skies in the United States. The airworthiness directive issued by the Civil Aviation Administration of China lists several changes airlines will need to make to the plane, including software upgrades, additional pilot training and revisions to operational manuals.

"After conducting sufficient assessment, CAAC considers the corrective actions are adequate to address this unsafe condition," the agency said in the directive.

The decision is the first step to lifting a grounding order that bans the 737 Max from flying in Chinese air space. Following the second Max crash, in Ethiopia in March 2019, China was the first country to ground the plane.

More than 80 countries followed with grounding orders of their own, but most, the United States included, had lifted them by June after Boeing made changes to the flight control system blamed for both crashes. China, a huge aviation market and a large Boeing customer, is one of the last countries to rescind its order. Indonesia, where the first crash occurred, and Russia are two holdouts remaining. 

Though the CAAC didn't set a date for passenger flights to resume, they could begin by the end of the month. Once the grounding order is lifted, non-Chinese airlines will be able to fly the Max into the country's air space.

Boeing, which could resume new Max deliveries to China next year, praised the agency's move. "The CAAC's decision is an important milestone toward safely returning the 737 MAX to service in China," the company said in a statement. 

Several Chinese airlines operate the Max, including Air China, China Eastern China Southern, Hainan Airlines and Donghai Airlines. The country also is developing a 737 Max competitor in the Comac C919, but that airplane has yet to enter service.