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FAA says 737 Max could return sooner than Boeing said

FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 11, 2019, file photo, a Boeing 737 Max being built for Norwegian Air International taxis for a test flight, at Renton Municipal Airport in Renton, Wash. Newly released Boeing documents show that company employees knew about problems with flight simulators for the now-grounded 737 Max jetliner and talked about misleading regulators. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

(CNN) — Just three days after Boeing warned airlines that they shouldn’t count on the 737 Max flying again before midyear, the US Federal Aviation Administration said Friday it might move faster than that.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson spoke Friday with senior officials at Southwest, United and American Airlines, the three US carriers that own the plane, to reiterate that the regulator hasn’t set a timeframe for completion of certification work on the aircraft, according to a statement from the agency.

“While the FAA continues to follow a thorough, deliberate process, the agency is pleased with Boeing’s progress in recent weeks toward achieving key milestones,” the statement said. “Safety is the top priority, and the FAA continues to work with other safety regulators to ensure that Boeing has addressed all known issues with the aircraft.”

Boeing did not have an immediate response to the FAA statement. Shares of Boeing, which had been lower earlier in the day, jumped on the news. They were up nearly 2% just before the close

Earlier this week, Boeing told its airline customers that based on its experience with the certification process “we are currently estimating that the ungrounding of the 737 MAX will begin during mid-2020.” The plane has been grounded since March following two fatal crashes that killed 346 people. A faulty safety system has been blamed for the crashes.

Officials at the three airlines, who all reported financial results earlier this week, said on conference calls with analysts that they were working with the assumption that the plane would not be approved in time to be back in service before the end of the summer or fall.

“We’re actually encouraged at what we hope is a more realistic time line and target,” said United President Scott Kirby, who is set to become CEO of the airline in May. United executives said on the analyst call that they don’t anticipate flying the Max this summer.

Southwest owns 34 of the Max jets and is awaiting delivery of another 27 that Boeing built during the grounding. Southwest CEO Gary Kelly told investors he’s eager to get the planes in service as soon as possible.

“Boeing needs to get the work done and get the certification flight done, give the FAA a chance to do their work and unground this airplane,” he said. “Boeing surprised us all this week with their June, July predictions about the ungrounding.

Boeing stock, which had been trading lower before the FAA statement, closed up nearly 2% on Friday. The company and the airlines had no immediate comment.

A previous version of this story misstated the number of 737 Max jets Boeing has built for Southwest Airlines.

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