Boeing Co.’s grounded 737 Max jet took a major step toward a return to flying after Europe’s air-safety regulator said it would send pilots to Canada to conduct test flights, overcoming COVID 19-related travel curbs.

The European Union Aviation Safety Agency will carry out the validation flights from Vancouver in the week of Sept. 7, EASA said Thursday. The tests will be preceded by simulator sessions in the U.K. this coming week.

The breakthrough gets around health-related U.S. travel restrictions that have frustrated efforts to assess Boeing’s fixes to the Max, which was idled worldwide after two deadly crashes. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration conducted certification flights two months ago, followed by Canada this week.

“While Boeing still has some final actions to close off, EASA judges the overall maturity of the re-design process is now sufficient to proceed to flight tests,” the agency said in a statement, adding that the step is a “prerequisite” for it to approve the Max’s new design.

Boeing rose 2.4 per cent to US$174.32 as of 12:34 p.m. in New York. They had dropped 47 per cent this year through Wednesday, the sharpest decline on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Travel restrictions have complicated Boeing’s efforts to work with regulators at home and abroad to certify the Max to resume commercial service. Because the jet is made in the U.S., the FAA is taking the lead on certifying any changes to the Max. Under international law, other nations have the option of validating the work or even insisting on additional safety measures, and the FAA has involved EASA and Canada from the start of the process.

Vancouver Solution

Canada has closed its border to all but “essential workers” in the virus-stricken U.S., prompting Canadian and European regulators to find a workaround through Vancouver to protect the health of their pilots and other staff without lengthy quarantines. The agencies are taking advantage of the close proximity of Vancouver to Boeing’s flight-testing base in Seattle, about 119 miles or 192 kilometers to the south.

The planemaker sent a private jet to ferry Transport Canada’s flight-test team to Boeing Field yesterday, where they boarded a Max 7 bristling with monitoring equipment for hours of flying over eastern Washington. Aviation enthusiasts monitored the test online in real time.

Boeing declined to comment on the Canadian or European flights.

Next Steps

With the three authorities’ individual tests out of the way, a set of collective examinations related to training requirements -- known as a Joint Operations Evaluation Board -- is set to take place at Gatwick airport south of London in the week beginning Sept. 14.

“Provided all goes well, fears that there could be a long lag between certification in the U.S. and the rest of the world are proving unfounded,” said Richard Aboulafia, an analyst at Teal Group in Fairfax, Virginia. “Things are moving in the right direction and a return to service late this year is still conceivable.”

The Max, the latest version of Boeing’s workhorse 737 series, was grounded worldwide in March 2019 after the two crashes killed 346 people.

After reviewing the results of the flights and Boeing’s detailed plan for revising systems blamed for the tragedies, the FAA on Aug. 3 said it had tentatively approved the fixes.

The public were given 45 days to comment on the proposed changes, meaning the agency could sign off on the return sometime in the fall.

In addition to changes to the plane’s computer systems and wiring, the FAA and regulators in other nations are reviewing revisions to pilot training programs.

--With assistance from Alan Levin and Kait Bolongaro.