The grounding of Boeing Co.'s 737 MAX jetliners continues to ripple through the airline industry, with two airlines now extending flight cancellations into August as efforts to fix the planes are beset with delays.
American Airlines Group Inc. said Sunday that it will cancel MAX flights through Aug. 19. Southwest Airlines Co., which has the biggest fleet of MAX jets, has pulled the plane from its schedules until Aug. 5. Together, the two airlines will be cutting an average of 275 flights a day.
While some airlines initially expected to see nearly 400 grounded jetliners back in service by later this month or early May, some are anticipating the jets could be out of service for most or all of the summer. Boeing has proposed a software fix for problems detected during two deadly crashes that it expects to be completed in the coming weeks, but regulatory approval would come later.
Analysts, including those at Credit Suisse, expect the cancellations could extend beyond August. At other firms, analysts have also suggested the grounding may give airlines more power to raise ticket prices, at least until the MAX returns.
In terms of percentage, the figures are relatively small. Southwest, for example, said the grounding has so far affected 4% of its passengers, and American said the summer cancellations affect 1.5% of daily flying.
Still, the grounding is now set to disrupt the peak summer season, leading carriers around the world to tear up flight schedules, keep aging, less fuel-efficient jets in service and fill a widening gap between available planes and rising passenger numbers. The scheduling uncertainty has already created chaos for some passengers. Angie Morrison bought tickets for her family's trip from Chicago to the Pacific Northwest in October.
She said Southwest emailed her on March 25 — after they had already arrived — alerting her that their flight five days later had been canceled. The family ended up having to head home two days early, skipping a Seattle Mariners game and a tour of the Museum of Flight. A nonstop, four hour return flight was replaced by a layover and a long delay.
Ms. Morrison said she was offered a $150 travel voucher, but said that is a fraction of what she lost. She remains frustrated that the airline didn't have a better plan in place to insulate customers from the effects of the grounding.
“What should have been a once-in-a-lifetime awesome opportunity for us became a disaster,” she said.
Airlines are hoping that setting summer schedules without the MAX should help avoid situations where flights being booked now are canceled on short notice, though American executives said they believe it's likely the plane could be cleared to fly sooner.
Southwest is allowing travelers whose schedules are changed to book a new flight without any increase in fare, and is setting up a dedicated phone line for them to call.
The 737 MAX fleet was grounded globally after an Ethiopian Airlines crash last month, which followed the crash of Lion Air 737 MAX jet last year. All 346 people on the two flights were killed, and investigators are focusing on the misfiring of a 737 MAX flight-control system known as MCAS. The system was apparently activated by false readings from sensors that measure the angle of the plane's nose, known as the angle of attack, according to investigators.
About two weeks ago, government and industry officials close to the deliberations estimated a software fix and related training revisions needed to get the planes back in the air—at least across North and South America — likely would be approved by regulators and implemented by carriers in late May or early June.
But now, that timeline appears to have shifted closer to the end of summer, partly because of additional software problems discovered in the wake of revisions to the stall prevention system.
The delays have prompted industry officials to focus on marketing and public-relations efforts to shore up passenger confidence in the aircraft.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which held a meeting Friday with U.S. MAX operators, their pilot unions and Dan Elwell, acting chief of the FAA, released a brief video of Mr. Elwell stressing the importance of the agency's “give and take with operators, pilots (and) mechanics” about relevant safety questions.
Capt. Dennis Tajer, spokesman for the union that represents pilots at American Airlines Group Inc., said it was emphasized during the meeting that the MAX won't be rushed back into service. “Our watches are off and our calendars are in the drawers,” he said. “The clock is not of interest to us. Our interest is in getting it done right.”
Delays to return the MAX to the air could stretch longer overseas, particularly in Europe and China, according to industry officials. In addition to the extra time needed to conduct their own technical reviews, foreign governments sometimes face domestic political pressure to hold off swiftly following the U.S. lead.
The problems for airlines and passengers will likely multiply as the grounding persists. American Airlines said it canceled some 1,200 flights in the first quarter and said it would have to cancel an average of 115 flights a day through Aug. 19.
— Robert Wall contributed to this article.
|Filling the Gap|
The 737 MAX grounding and delivery freeze came just as dozens of carriers were planning to introduce or expand their fleet.
By Alison Sider, Andy Pasztor and Doug Cameron