Inside the Icelandair Boeing 737 MAX training simulator in the TRU Flight Training Iceland in Reykjavik, Iceland, on January 17 2020. Picture: REUTERS/GEIRIX
Inside the Icelandair Boeing 737 MAX training simulator in the TRU Flight Training Iceland in Reykjavik, Iceland, on January 17 2020. Picture: REUTERS/GEIRIX

Montreal/Sydney/Washington — Airlines are scrambling to book time in 737 MAX training facilities as far afield as Fiji, Iceland and Panama, operators have said, after Boeing recommended that pilots be trained in one of the few simulators replicating the latest model.

This means thousands of pilots from more than 54 airlines need to squeeze into about three dozen 737 MAX simulators around the world before they can fly the plane.

“Boeing is recommending that all 737 MAX pilots undergo training in a simulator prior to flying the aircraft in commercial service,” the company told Reuters on Tuesday evening, the first confirmation of its new policy.

On January 7, the company had recommended using a simulator but did not specify what type.

The 737 MAX has been grounded since March 2019 after two fatal crashes and cannot return to service until regulators approve software changes and training plans.

The estimated 34 737 MAX simulators in service, produced separately by Canadian CAE and Textron’s simulator and training division TRU, are less than a quarter of the number of older 737 NG simulators certified by US and European regulators.

“I think that a shortage of simulators will mean the MAX fleet will start flying more slowly than the airlines would like,” said Guðmundur Örn Gunnarsson, MD of TRU Flight Training Iceland, a joint venture between Icelandair and Textron’s TRU.

“In the beginning it was said that simulator training would not be needed,” he said. “This changes it totally.”

Simulators scarce

Gunnarsson said TRU Flight Training Iceland has had more inquiries than usual from potential airline customers about the use of its 737 MAX simulator since Boeing’s January 7 announcement.

Boeing said on Tuesday it did not expect to win approval for returning the 737 MAX to service until mid-year, longer than previous estimates, in part because regulators are working on new pilot training requirements. Many airlines did not order 737 MAX simulators, assuming they could rely on the older 737 NG simulators because the types were so similar.

Simulators can cost C$10m ($7.64m) to C$20m each, with the 737 MAX at the upper end, CAE said. Hourly rates for simulator training can cost $500 to $1,000, it said.

High demand for 737 MAX simulators has led CAE and rival TRU to produce simulators for customers they have yet to line up. “Customers are making increasing inquiries from all over the globe,” a TRU spokesperson said.

South Korean low-cost carrier Eastar Jet, which does not have a 737 MAX simulator, said it had already contacted Boeing, other airlines and training centres. “With limited MAX simulators available, we expect carriers will likely face challenges to book slots for them,” said an Eastar official, who is not authorised to publicly discuss the matter and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Selling times

Fiji Airways spent more than $10m to buy a simulator to help save on the costs and lost productivity of sending pilots to Singapore, Australia and the US for training, said its COO, Paul Doherty.

The carrier uses its simulator 35% to 42% of the available hours to train its 70 737 pilots and has plans to sell the additional time. Now it is getting calls from airlines thousands of miles away.

“We have got interest ... particularly from Asia,” Doherty said. “We are expecting some from the US. Our focus is to really develop our own pilots and to provide the best for Fiji Airways, but we are also very happy to help other airlines that need some time. That could be a real choke point, I think, for a lot of airlines.”

Panamanian carrier Copa Holdings, the only Latin American airline with a 737 MAX simulator, said it is seeing a lot of demand, although it is not authorised to disclose the interested carriers. Copa said it its top priority is to train its own 245 pilots.

US airlines have more simulators than many of their counterparts abroad, but they also have more 737 pilots to train, which could be done in stages.

Before Boeing’s recommendations for simulator training, Southwest Airlines, the world’s largest 737 operator, had estimated it would take about 30 days to train all of its roughly 10,000 737 pilots on the MAX simulator.

On Tuesday, Southwest said it would be premature to make cost and timing estimates before regulators approved a training package. The airline said it has three simulators in various stages of US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) certification and expects to receive an additional three in late 2020.


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