With President Trump issuing an emergency order yesterday grounding the Boeing 737 Max fleet in the United States, Southwest, American and United scrambled to replace Boeing 737 Max 8s and 9s on their routes and rebook passengers as quickly as possible. A Southwest flight from Oakland to Newark landed at 7:10 p.m. EDT, Wednesday, the final Max flight by a U.S. carrier until the grounding is lifted. American and United’s last Max flights landed earlier in the day.
Southwest Airlines said it removed its 34 Max 8 aircraft from scheduled service, noting that the aircraft represents less than 5% of its daily flights. Any customer booked on a canceled Southwest Max 8 flight can rebook on alternate flights without any additional fees or fare differences within 14 days of their original date of travel between the original city pairs. The airline recommends travelers go to southwest.com to rebook, cancel or check flight status because its call centers are jammed.
Southwest said it remained confident in the Max 8 after completing more than 88,000 flight hours and over 41,000 flights, but that it supported the FAA’s action. Southwest’s Max 8 flights are spread throughout the country.
United, which operates Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft on 40 flights per day, said, “We do not anticipate a significant operational impact as a result of this order. We will continue to work with our customers to help minimize any travel disruptions and will proactively contact any customer whose travel may be impacted by this order.” United has a heavy concentration of Max 9 flights in Houston and Los Angeles.
American Airlines, which operates 24 Boeing 737 Max 8s, said it would “work to rebook customers as quickly as possible.” American’s Max 8 flights are concentrated into and out of Miami.
No one knows how long the planes will be out of service. The last fleet grounding, of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2013, lasted more than three months.
Now that the U.S. has joined Canada, Europe, Australia, China and other countries in banning the Boeing 737 Max 8 from its airspace, aviation analysts condemned what they say was a decision made in the court of public opinion rather than based on facts. The planes were grounded after Sunday’s fatal crash of an Ethiopian Airlines 737 Max 8 jet. Last October, a Lion Air 737 Max crashed into the sea soon after departing Jakarta, killing all onboard.
Aviation analyst Bob Mann of R.W. Mann and Co. said, “The entire episode was handled badly, by people trying to score points in the court of public opinion with no more information about probable cause than the Lion Air accident report.
“As a result, FAA and Boeing became road kill in that rush to judgment,” he said. “A sad commentary on the loss of scientific inquiry and informed, data-based decision-making.”
Mann is among the aviation analysts who support the FAA’s stated confidence in the Boeing 737 Max 8’s safety. The U.S. airlines that fly the Max 8, American and Southwest, had also expressed their support in the aircraft.
Aviation analyst Mike Boyd, president of Boyd Group International, said that misinformation has caused nations and carriers to ground the plane rather than focus on what he believes are the likely culprits: insufficient training and poor maintenance.
“The reality is the pilots’ union of American Airlines came out and said on American carriers that airplane is safe because people are properly trained,” he said. “Who am I going to listen to, Dianne Feinstein and Mitt Romney or the safety director of a major pilots union?”
Both senators had been among the chorus calling for the FAA to ground the Max 8 planes until the Ethiopia crash investigation is complete.
Boyd said Trump’s decision today “appears to be a strategy to get this mess resolved ASAP.”
“Boeing will deliver upgrades in software, and in the process we will find pilot error and management failure at the two airlines that had accidents,” he predicted.
Considering that Ethiopian Airlines’ first officer had only 200 flight hours of total flight experience and that Lion Air in recent years had been banned from operating in Europe, Boyd said both airlines might have training and maintenance issues.
Boyd said 200 flight hours is “the equivalent of a student pilot. In an emergency, that meant he was useless,” he said. “Whether it is a sensor, software, hardware or a training issue, it is puzzling and demands prompt study, but is not a basis in itself to avoid the aircraft,” said Mann. “By contrast, there are many reasons to avoid flying on certain airlines that operate Boeing 737 Max aircraft, including any carrier in parts of the world where aviation safety oversight lacks rigor and resources.”
He added that most of the world’s 737 Max 8s operate in China, followed by the U.S. “There have been no issues reported in either operating environment,” he said.