Travellers could pay the price as airlines pull Boeing 737 Max from summer schedule

OTTAWA—Air Canada and WestJet have removed the Boeing 737 Max from their schedules into the summer busy season and passengers could be left paying the price, one expert says.

The two airlines made the announcement after Boeing conceded Tuesday that the jets likely won’t be cleared to resume commercial operations until mid-year, further disrupting flight schedules.

The reduced capacity — WestJet, Air Canada and Sunwing have a total of 41 of Max jets in their fleets — means the likelihood of higher fares and less choice for passengers looking to travel this summer, said Fred Lazar, associate professor of economics at York University’s Schulich School of Business.

For airlines, that means juggling their fleets and extending the contingency plans that have been in place for almost a year to preserve their schedules.

“They’re going to now start moving around some planes, defer some maintenance, squeeze as much flying from the existing fleet as possible to come as close to their summer schedule as possible,” Lazar said in an interview.

Not having the 737 Max available will hit the bottom line for carriers, Lazar said, but that’s offset by the fact that the aircraft is grounded worldwide, meaning that global capacity is reduced, which in turn has “increased the pricing power of the airlines,” he said.

That is bad news for passengers looking for deals. “The planes are all going to be full. If you try to look for a bargain, they’re not going to be there,” he said.

Lazar said he’s not surprised by this latest delay, saying that regulators are going to put Boeing “through the hoop” to make sure the 737 Max is ready to fly.

“They’re not going to want another incident … they’re taking every precaution imaginable,” he said, predicting that it could be September before the 737 Max jets are flying again in Canada.

Air Canada said it removed the 737 Max from its schedule through to June 30 to minimize disruptions for travellers as it waits decisions by Canadian and international regulators on “returning the 737 Max safely into service.”

Customers affected by the changes will get notice of their new itineraries and offered “suitable travel options,” the airline said.

WestJet, which has 13 Boeing 737 Max jets, said it would be updating its schedule to remove the aircraft from use until June 24.

“We thank our guests for their patience and our WestJetters for their commitment to keeping our airline moving safely and on time as we continue to adjust our schedule,” said Ed Sims, WestJet president and CEO said in a written statement.

“We remain confident in the regulatory process undertaken by the Federal Aviation (Administration) and Transport Canada to ensure the safe return of the aircraft.”

On Tuesday, Boeing said that it’s not likely the 737 Max will be cleared to resume flights until mid-year. The twin-engine jets were grounded by Transport Canada and other regulators in March 2019 following two fatal crashes.

In both accidents, investigators have centred on a design flaw in a system that’s meant to prevent the jet from entering an aerodynamic stall. Early indications are that the system put the jets into dives from which their pilots were unable to recover.

Boeing has been working on a fix to that system, along with revamped training for pilots to handle such emergencies. That training may now require simulator sessions for 737 Max pilots, which could further delay the return to service.

In its statement, Air Canada said decisions about returning the jet to service would be based on its own safety assessment following “approvals by the FAA and Transport Canada.”

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Air Canada has 24 of the jets in its fleet. But the potential disruption actually extends further since the airline — which has 61 of the jets on order — was supposed to have taken delivery of an additional 12 jets by now.

Spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick said the airline is still refining its summer schedule but suggested that there would be minimal disruption for passengers. “In the past we have been very successful in mitigating the impact of the grounding,” he said.

The Montreal-based airline got some relief last week when it launched flights with the new Airbus A220-300.


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