Canadian airlines aren’t doing enough to help customers worried about flying on a type of aircraft that has been grounded around the globe following a deadly crash, according to at least one passenger rights expert.
Numerous countries have banned the Boeing 737 Max 8 from their airspace after one of the planes operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed Sunday minutes after takeoff from Addis Ababa.
The disaster killed 157 passengers and crew, and came less than five months after a 737 Max operated by Indonesia’s Lion Air plunged into the ocean, killing all 189 people on board. Similarities between the two incidents have stoked concerns about the plane among aviation authorities worldwide.
But while China, the United Kingdom, Ireland and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency have suspended flights using the 737 Max, Canada and the United States have not followed suit, and many airlines in those countries are still flying the planes.
Air Canada operates 24 of the Boeing 737 Max planes, while WestJet has 13, and Sunwing four. According to a third-party flight tracking site, Air Canada had 49 flights using the 737 Max 8 scheduled on Wednesday, while WestJet had 38.
In a statement sent late Tuesday night, Sunwing said that while the Federal Aviation Administration had declared the 737 Max 8 air-worthy, the company had decided to “temporarily suspend” its use of the aircraft due to “evolving commercial reasons unrelated to safety, including airspace restrictions being imposed by some of our partner destinations.” The airline said it was in the process of revising its schedule and hoped to minimize the impact to customers. The planes make up less than 10 per cent of its fleet.
The companies hadn’t committed to waiving change or cancellation fees for customers worried about flying on the 737 Max, as of Tuesday evening.
Whitby resident Jonathan Holliwell was in Maui with his wife and three daughters on Tuesday, scheduled to return home Sunday on a 737 Max operated by Air Canada. He said the couple was considering switching to a WestJet flight using a different type of aircraft, but they were concerned they would face significant upfront costs.
“She’s just not in the mood to get on that plane going home,” Holliwell said of his wife. “I’m a little concerned, for sure. Who wouldn’t be?”
He said he was disappointed Air Canada hadn’t committed to waiving its fees.
“Our rights are nothing right now,” he said.
Gabor Lukacs, founder of the Air Passenger Rights advocacy group, said it’s wrong of airlines not to let worried passengers change planes at no cost. Although there is no conclusive evidence that the 737 Max is unsafe, he said, other countries’ decisions to bar the planes means passengers’ fears “are grounded in real fact.”
“I would say the risk at this point is such that forcing passengers to fly on that (model of aircraft) is unethical,” Lukacs said.
Lukacs said that the government deciding to ground all Max 8s would be the “nuclear option,” but recommended Canadian officials do so unless airlines make it easier for worried customers to change flights.
“Because the airlines are not willing to do what is reasonable, there is really only one way for the governments to protect passengers, which is to ground the fleet,” he said.
Air Canada announced Tuesday that it had cancelled four flights between London, U.K., and the Canadian cities of Halifax, N.S., and St. John’s, Nfld., “due to the U.K.’s Civil Aviation Authority banning all Boeing 737 Max aircraft operations.” The flights had been scheduled to take place between Tuesday and Thursday.
In a statement the airline said it was “working to rebook impacted customers as soon as possible through our Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa hubs.” The company advised affected customers that they could change their flights to another date at no charge, but warned that “due to anticipated call volumes, customers can expect delays” reaching call centres.
“Safety is always our overarching principle, and based on real information and data, and ongoing consultations with government safety regulators including Transport Canada and the (U.S. Federal Aviation Administration), we have full confidence in the safety of our fleet,” said Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick said that Air Canada has instituted a “flexible rebooking policy” for customers “who for their own personal reasons do not wish fly on the 737.” The policy “includes options to change their flights to another aircraft, if available, space permitting.”
He said the airline would deal with customer requests on a “case by case basis” but didn’t rule out that they could face cancellation or change fees.
Morgan Bell, a spokesperson for Calgary-based WestJet, said none of its flights had been impacted by other countries banning the plane.
“WestJet remains actively involved in discussions with Transport Canada, Boeing and fellow Canadian operators of the Boeing Max 737 aircraft and reassures our guests and employees that we will continue to fly with their safety and best interests at the forefront,” she said.
Bell acknowledged “guests may have questions and concerns surrounding their travel plans” but said “WestJet’s normal change/cancel policies will apply” to any who wish to alter their flights.
According to the company’s website, customers who make changes to flights more than 24 hours after booking can be subject to fees of between $100 and $400. Customers who cancel their flights 24 hours after booking aren’t issued any refund if they booked a basic fare, while some other travel classes are given a credit and charged a cancellation fee of between $100 and $600.
Sunwing didn’t return a request for comment on flight change information.