Will Boeing’s Flight Grounding Affect Your Holiday Travel?
You know that blessed moment when you board an airplane and realize you have the entire row to yourself? Probably not going to happen this upcoming holiday season.
Due to the grounding of Boeing’s 737 Max airliners, there were about 41 million fewer airplane seats throughout the summer, and shortages may carry through the winter.
After two airplane crashes that killed 346 people on board in Indonesia and Ethiopia in October 2018 and March 2019, respectively, airline regulators grounded all Boeing 737 Max airliners—the new model of Boeing airplane involved in both crashes.
This decision came as a major shock for some US airlines, like United, American, and Southwest, and affected plenty of international carriers as well. Airlines using (and planning to use) the new model had to make major adjustments—and fast.
Immediately, airlines reacted by canceling flights. They rearranged routes and unretired old planes without knowing when the 737 Max would be ready for use.
Along with the airlines, interested travelers are waiting on the latest news. With the Boeing 737 Max grounded, what can travelers expect this upcoming holiday season? Here’s how to know whether you’ll be affected, and how to deal if you are.
Some History on the Grounding Order
After two devastating flights over the course of five months, Ethiopian and Chinese authorities were the first to enact a grounding, creating a domino effect. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) initially deemed the airplanes safe but reversed that call two days after China’s decision to investigate the aircraft.
By March 13, all Boeing 737 Max planes were grounded. The groundings had an immediate impact on 387 in-use airplanes across 59 airlines.
United, American, and Southwest were some of the most severely affected airlines in the U.S. Internationally, dozens more airlines saw their fleets immediately shrink.
Not only were in-use Boeing planes grounded, but plenty of airlines were preparing for deliveries of 737 Max planes in the coming months and years. Many had placed orders for the planes years ago and are now scrambling to fill in the gaps.
Although still under scrutiny by the FAA, investigators believe the plane’s automated flight control system was to blame for the crashes. After picking up an erroneous signal, the aircraft may have been sent into a nosedive that the pilots were unable to recover from.
Who Was Affected by the Grounding?
Airlines with 737 Max airplanes in their fleets were forced to rearrange their schedules and routes. They’ve delayed the retirement of some planes or bought different or used planes, such as older models of the Boeing 737.
Southwest made the decision to pull all services from Newark, New Jersey. At the time of the grounding, Southwest was using more 737 Maxes than any other U.S. airline—34 of its 750 active planes were grounded.
The grounding has had serious business implications for the airlines—lost revenue is predicted to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, some of which will be recouped by Boeing. According to National Public Radio , “American has been forced to cancel 115 flights per day through November. Because the 737 Max carries 200 passengers, the cancellations potentially affect 23,000 people every day.”
Beyond dealing with cancellations and lost customers, many airlines that purchased 737 Max planes for their increased fuel efficiency now face higher projected fuel costs.
A Russian airline in August filed a lawsuit against Boeing for misrepresenting the safety of the planes. The airline, Avia, agreed to buy 35 of the planes several years ago.
Boeing announced a 35% drop in revenue and a loss of $2.9 billion in the second quarter of 2019. In July, it announced a whopping $4.9 billion cost to be paid out “in connection with an estimate of potential concessions and other considerations to customers for disruptions related to the 737 Max grounding and associated delivery delays.”
When Are the Planes Expected to Fly Again?
Don’t expect to see a 737 Max when flying Southwest anytime in the immediate future. Recent reports state that the airline’s pilots claim they do not think the planes will be back in their lineup until February at the earliest.
Southwest Airlines was the first US airline to pull the 737 Max from its schedule for the remainder of the year. United and American are now stating they will keep the planes grounded until 2020—extending from their original plan of November to accommodate the busiest travel season. Both United and American agreed that it would take at least a month to train pilots and reintegrate the plane after FAA approval.
But the dates should certainly be taken with a grain of salt. Not only have they been pushed several times this year, but an October 11 report claims that a panel of international air safety regulators found the FAA did not properly review the safety system in Boeing’s 737 Max.
The report also faulted Boeing for its “inadequate communications” with the FAA regarding changes to its flight systems. These criticisms could make the potential January fly dates more hopeful than probable.
What Does This Mean for Holiday Travel?
If you’ve started shopping for November and December travel dates and don’t see your usual route available, it may have something to do with the grounding of the 737 Max.
Travelers who are used to taking Southwest out of Newark will either need to take a different airline or travel to LaGuardia starting Nov. 3, as Southwest has consolidated its New York travel out of just one airport.
American claims to be canceling 140 flights a day until the grounding is lifted, which would mean more than 14,000 flights will be canceled during the fourth quarter and into the early January proposed date.
You might want to check the airline’s website to get a feel for travel schedules. Another good idea might be to book your travel as early as possible to ensure that you get a seat on your desired flight.
Fewer planes—and therefore fewer seats—will be available during the upcoming holiday season. And canceled flights are always a possibility, especially with no surplus of planes to fall back on. It might be a good idea to check your flight status before you head to the airport.
Airlines have stated that flights will be fuller. Southwest, in particular, says it’s flying more passengers on each plane. If you are flying Southwest, you might want to check in as close to 24 hours before your flight as possible. That way, you might have a higher boarding priority and a better chance at sitting in a coveted aisle or window seat.
The grounding could also result in some price increases for passengers, according to Ben Mutzabaugh, the senior aviation editor for The Points Guy. More than likely, this will happen during peak times, like Christmas or Thanksgiving. There is typically a limited supply of cheaper seats, and those are likely to get snatched up quickly.
“We have seen fares creep up since the summer,” Mutzabaugh told Travel + Leisure magazine . “An average traveler may notice a slight increase. Where it will be most pronounced for most people is where they’re booking flights with high demand, especially around the holidays.”
One silver lining of too-full flights? Savvy, flexible travelers on overbooked flights may be able to earn free travel if they are willing to get bumped to later flights. You could consider asking whether it’s a possibility as you check into your flight and again at the gate.
Traveling Without Worries
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