DALLAS - Boeing Co's 737 MAX staged its first post-grounding flight with media on board on Wednesday, as carriers seek to demonstrate to passengers that the redesigned jet is safe after a 20-month safety ban. In another display of confidence, European budget airline Ryanair was set to place a hefty order for up to 75 additional 737 MAX jets, industry sources said. Wednesday's American Airlines 737 MAX flight was a 45-minute hop from Dallas, Texas, to Tulsa, Oklahoma. It comes weeks before the first commercial passenger flight on Dec. 29, and is part of a public relations effort to allay any concerns about the aircraft. Boeing's best-selling jet was grounded in March 2019 after two crashes in five months killed a combined 346 people, marking the industry's worst safety crisis in decades and undermining U.S. aviation regulatory leadership. Wednesday's flight marked the first time anyone besides regulators and industry personnel flew on the MAX since the grounding, which ignited investigations focusing on software that overwhelmed pilots. The mood on Wednesday's flight, which included a Reuters reporter, was subdued. Some passengers mingled and chatted before landing, when applause broke out. Reflecting the COVID-19 pandemic that has roiled commercial aviation, each of the roughly 90 journalists, flight attendants and other American Airlines employees on the flight wore face masks. "The history of aviation is built around a chain of safety," Captain Pete Gamble told passengers just before takeoff. "When the chain of safety breaks it's up to those of us in the industry to mend it and bring it back." Last month, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration cleared the jet following design changes and new training. A smooth return to service for the MAX is seen as critical for Boeing's reputation and finances, which have been hit hard by a freeze on MAX deliveries as well as the coronavirus crisis. Airlines and leasing companies have spent hundreds of billions of dollars buying the latest upgrade of the 737, the world's most-sold passenger aircraft. Lured by sharp discounts and anxious to help repair the MAX's reputation around which they have built their fleet plans, some airlines are now stepping in to show commercial support. INTENSE PUBLICITY Boeing is bracing for intense publicity from even routine glitches by manning a 24-hour "situation room" to monitor every MAX flight globally, and has briefed some industry commentators on details on the return to service, industry sources said. "We are continuing to work closely with global regulators and our customers to safely return the fleet to commercial service," a Boeing spokesman said. Brazil's Gol Linhas Aereas Inteligentes is planning a media event for the redesigned MAX this month. The PR efforts are designed to highlight software and training upgrades which the FAA has said remove any doubt about the plane's safety. But crash victims' family members have protested the return to service, saying it is premature before a final investigative report on the second crash in Ethiopia has been released. Boeing toned down its original plans for the plane's return as the crisis dragged on longer than it expected - scrapping a high-profile publicity campaign, a ceremony in the Seattle area and a tour using an Oman Air 737 MAX, industry sources said. In an example of how airlines have begun to soft-pedal references to the MAX brand, the safety cards on Wednesday's flight omitted the "MAX" name and just said "737." REUTERS
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