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Over the weekend, Boeing’s 737 Max nearly returned to service in China. China Southern Airlines appeared poised to restart commercial operations with the Max on October 30 with bookable revenue flights from Guangzhou to Zhengzhou and Wuhan, but fresh COVID-19 lockdowns went into effect curtailing numerous routes after a sharp increase in cases.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China in December 2021 approved a slate of changes for the Max to return, but that process has been inching along as the regulator moves toward clearing modified aircraft and crew training for service again.

Related: Boeing postures for a long freeze inside China

The fleet of 97 737 Max jets in China has been grounded there since March 10, 2019, when the country became the first regulator to sideline the aircraft after Ethiopian Airlines 302 crashed the day before. The Federal Aviation Administration was first to unground the jet in November 2020 and more than 190 jurisdictions have since followed suit.

While there’s been no official declaration of the Max’s clearance to fly passengers in China, the Max’s low-key re-appearance in China Southern’s schedule for the first time since 2019 is the clearest sign that the aircraft’s return is fast approaching.

As of November 1, China Southern’s filed schedule still showed a pair of Max flights, but COVID measures have canceled all but one of the 11 China Southern flights between Guangzhou and Wuhan and every one of its flights between Guangzhou and Zhengzhou on November 2, according to the airline’s website. Both routes operate with a variety of different aircraft types in China Southern’s fleet.

The jet’s return to service in China will be the first of three important milestones for Boeing in the country, with the pacing of the subsequent hurdles — resumption of new deliveries and orders — linked to the tumultuous transpacific geopolitics preventing the country from taking any new 737 Max jets.

Related: Jetliner diplomacy between the U.S. and China looks a long way off

“I have not gotten a single signal, and I’m surprised by it, that they’re going to take deliveries in the near term,” said Boeing chief executive David Calhoun last week as part of the company’s quarterly earnings report. “It is really hard for me to find signals that things are going to change in China and move in our direction.”

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Jon Ostrower is Editor-in-chief of The Air Current. Prior to launching TAC in June 2018, Ostrower served as Aviation Editor for CNN Worldwide, guiding the network's global coverage of the business and operations of flying. Ostrower joined CNN in 2016 following four and half years at the Wall Street Journal. Based first in Chicago and then in Washington, D.C. he covered Boeing, aviation safety and the business of global aerospace. Before that, Ostrower was editor of the award-winning FlightBlogger for Flightglobal and Flight International Magazine covering the development of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and other new aircraft programs from 2007 to 2012. Ostrower, a Boston native, graduated from The George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs with a bachelor's degree in Political Communication. He is based in Seattle.

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