Southwest Airlines hopes to get its grounded Boeing 737 Max aircraft back in the air by the last three months of the year, CEO Gary Kelly said in the company's annual shareholder meeting Thursday.
The airline's 34 Max aircraft, the largest fleet of any domestic carrier, were removed from service in March 2019, when the Federal Aviation Administration ordered all Max aircraft grounded after two crashes that killed 346 people within five months.
American Airlines had 24 Max planes at the time the aircraft were grounded; United had 14. As recently as February, Southwest projected it could have the planes flying again by August.
Kelly said Southwest wants to retire some older aircraft, especially with the sharp downturn in demand related to the coronavirus pandemic. And he said the airline considers the Max a superior aircraft, even compared to its relatively new 737 NextGen fleet.
"We're very committed to the Max," Kelly told shareholders in a virtual meeting Thursday.
Mike Van de Ven, Southwest's chief operating officer, said the Max holds advantages in terms of maintenance costs and fuel efficiency.
"We'd like to get them in the active fleet as soon as possible," Van de Ven said.
The FAA would need to recertify the Max before it can fly again.
The airline hopes that will happen in time to prepare its Max planes in the third quarter to to return to service by the fourth quarter. Another 27 aircraft that Boeing built for Southwest are expected to be delivered when the aircraft is ungrounded.
Boeing halted production of the aircraft in January.
Kelly said roughly 400 of the company's 750 aircraft have been idled because of the pandemic. The company lost nearly $1 billion in April and cut its May schedule by 65%.
Southwest has cut $6 billion in expenses, Kelly said, including capital projects and aircraft deliveries.
Southwest has not resorted to furloughs and layoffs of any of its roughly 60,000 employees. The airline accepted federal support of $3.2 billion under the federal CARES Act to preserve employee paychecks through Sept. 30.
If conditions don't improve after that, Kelly said, the airline might have to reconsider.
Kelly also noted that Southwest has a cash reserve of $13 billion, enough to carry the company for 20 months.
"Furloughs and layoffs would be the last thing we want to entertain," Kelly said. "We're going to do everything we possibly can to avoid them."
Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson, USA TODAY
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Southwest Airlines CEO: Boeing 737 Max could fly again in late 2020