Passengers who had flights scheduled on the Boeing 737 MAX should expect disruptions through the summer.
With the busiest travel period approaching, airlines are making alternative plans for flights now that the jets have been grounded worldwide after two fatal crashes. The jets are likely to remain grounded through the summer travel season as Boeing awaits approval from the Federal Aviation Administration of its fix of its MCAS automated flight control system, which is believed to have caused the accidents.
Global regulators will also have to sign off on any fixes, meaning the process to get the planes flying around the world could take a long time.
United Airlines spokesperson Frank Benenati said the carrier will keep its 14 737 MAX planes grounded through early July. It had about 130 cancellations in April related to the 737 MAX and projects to have 900 cancellations this month.
In June, the airline expects to cancel about 35 to 40 flights a day, which will result in 1,120 flights being canceled for the month.
The airline is using spare aircraft and other solutions to mitigate the effects. It is automatically rebooking affected customers.
“Moving forward, we’ll continue to monitor the regulatory process and nimbly make the necessary adjustments to our operation and our schedule to benefit our customers who are traveling this summer,” Benenati said.
Southwest Airlines has modified its schedule through at least Aug. 5. A Southwest spokesperson said the jet represents less than five percent of its daily flights. Passengers are being re-accommodated. If those new plans don’t work for customers, they will be able to rebook on alternative flights without any fares or fee differences between the original cities.
American Airlines has extended its cancellations of 737 MAX flights through Aug. 19.
The airline said about 115 flights will be canceled per day through Aug. 19. That represents about 15 percent of American’s total flying each day this summer.
“You’re talking the equivalent of a football stadium being inconvenienced each day,” said Rick Seaney, CEO of FareCompare.com.
Boeing has been on the defense over its best-selling jet after a Lion Air plane crashed in Indonesia in October, killing 189 passengers. Then in March, an Ethiopian Airlines plane had a similar crash, resulting in 157 deaths. It was only until the second accident that the planes were grounded worldwide.
The suspected cause of both crashes is a faulty sensor in its MCAS system that mistakenly activated an automated system that pushed the nose of the planes down.
Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg defended the 737 MAX plane last month during the company’s shareholders meeting.
After asking for a moment of silence for the victims, Muilenburg said that the company was making great efforts to solve the problem.
“From the days immediately following the Lion Air accident, our top engineers and technical experts have been working tirelessly in collaboration with the Federal Aviation Administration and our customers to finalize and implement a software update that will ensure accidents like these never happen again,” he told shareholders.
He said the update will prevent the erroneous angle of attack sensor readings.
“We know we can break this link in the chain. It’s our responsibility to eliminate this risk,” he said.
He said test pilots had made 146 flights on the 737 MAX jet totaling about 246 hours of airtime with the updated software.
“Nearly 90 percent of our 50-plus MAX operators around the globe have experienced that software update themselves during one of our simulator sessions,” he said. “With the certified software update implemented, the 737 MAX will be one of the safest airplanes ever to fly.”
It’s not the first time Boeing has faced the scrutiny of regulators and an unsettled public. When it introduced the 787 Dreamliner in 2013, its lithium ion batteries ignited on some flights. The jets were grounded for three months until Boeing fixed the problem.
But Boeing still faces a crisis as many airlines and passengers wonder how the jets were allowed to fly in the first place, especially after the first crash.
The company faced more questions as reports surfaced that it did not tell Southwest Airlines and the FAA that a safety feature known as a disagree alert was deactivated before the crashes.
Boeing disputed the stories. A plane’s disagree alert lights up if the plane’s sensors transmit erroneous data about the pitch of a plane’s nose.
“Boeing included the disagree alert as a standard feature on the MAX, although this alert has not been considered a safety feature on airplanes and is not necessary for the safe operation of the airplane,” the company said in a written statement. “Boeing did not intentionally or otherwise deactivate the disagree alert on its MAX airplanes.”
“The disagree alert was tied or linked into the angle of attack indicator, which is an optional feature on the MAX. Unless an airline opted for the angle of attack indicator, the disagree alert was not operable,” the company further explained.
Anthony Roman, founder and CEO of A.C. Roman and Associates, said it will take time for the public to regain confidence in the plane. He said not only do the sensors have to be fixed but pilots have to be told of all new designs and receive proper training.
“I’d want to ensure that pilot training concerning the new code on the … system and operation itself and all other design changes are known and that the training is robust and proper and the idiosyncrasies of the new design are known by the pilots,” he said. “Once information is not provided to you about a design, not provided to pilots, not included in the manual, no training provided, that shakes the confidence of the flying public and the pilots to the core.”