Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches
Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Long Road to Recertification
The Boeing 737 Max 9 has faced a long and winding road to recertification since being grounded in March 2019 following two fatal crashes. For Boeing, airline customers, and travelers alike, the process has been filled with headaches and uncertainty.
Following the crashes of Lion Air Flight 610 and Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302, which killed 346 people combined, aviation authorities across the globe grounded the 737 Max over concerns about its MCAS automated flight control system. This system was implicated in both accidents.
With its cash cow jet out of service, Boeing faced intense scrutiny from regulators before the FAA finally cleared the 737 Max to fly again in late 2020. However, other aviation bodies around the world took longer to follow suit. The aircraft only returned to European skies in early 2022 after the European Union Aviation Safety Agency approved modifications Boeing made to the jet.
Even with regulatory approval, Boeing faced a long process of retrofitting the nearly 400 grounded 737 Max planes already built and delivering new ones to expectant airline customers. This included adding redundancies to the MCAS, updating pilot training requirements, and making tweaks to other systems.
For airlines that fly the 737 Max, the delays getting their planes back in service caused scheduling headaches and flight cancellations. Carriers like American Airlines and United were forced to repeatedly push back return dates for the jet as the recertification process dragged on.
The airlines that suffered most were those that had based significant parts of their fleets around the 737 Max, like Southwest Airlines. With dozens of its Max planes sitting idle, Southwest struggled to meet booming post-pandemic travel demand in 2022, canceling over 10,000 flights in the first half of the year alone.
The lack of available Max planes also contributed to the broader airline capacity crunch that triggered a surge in airfares in 2022. According to aviation data firm Cirium, there were still nearly 300 Max jets parked in storage in mid-2022 waiting for delivery to airlines. Those missing seats put upward pressure on ticket prices industrywide.
For many travelers, the continued unavailability of the 737 Max even years after its grounding caused frustration. With airfares up, seating limited, and thousands of flights scrapped, the Max's woes directly impacted the flying public.
The turmoil also damaged Boeing's reputation. The accidents and ongoing certification delays made the Max a symbol of missteps in airplane design and safety oversight. It contributed to the company posting massive losses even before the COVID-19 pandemic upended travel.
What else is in this post?
- Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Long Road to Recertification
- Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Airlines Still Without Max Planes
- Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Cascading Flight Cancellations
- Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Fewer Seats Mean Higher Fares
- Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Boeing's Reputation Takes a Hit
- Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Travelers Left Scrambling
- Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Future of the 737 Max Uncertain
- Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Competition from Airbus A320neo Family
Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Airlines Still Without Max Planes
While the 737 Max is gradually returning to the skies, not every airline that previously flew the jet has gotten their Max planes back yet. This is causing ongoing disruptions for some carriers and forcing them to find alternative aircraft to meet their route needs.
One airline notably still waiting for the bulk of its Max order is Ryanair, Europe's largest low-cost carrier. The Irish airline was expecting to have over 60 Max jets in its fleet by now after placing a massive order for 210 of the fuel-efficient planes. However, as of mid-2022 Ryanair had only received about 35 Max aircraft from Boeing.
Without its full complement of Max jets, Ryanair has struggled to expand capacity to capitalize on the travel rebound. In summer 2022, the airline was forced to cut flights to destinations like Berlin and Hamburg because it lacked enough airplanes. Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary called the Max delivery delays “enormously frustrating” and said the plane shortages forced his airline to miss out on growth opportunities.
The situation is similar at Norwegian Air Shuttle. The Scandinavian low-cost carrier had built its long-haul strategy around the 737 Max but filed for bankruptcy protection in late 2021 after being ravaged by the global groundings. Now recovering, Norwegian is still waiting for its first re-delivery of a Max plane. It doesn't expect to resume Max flights until 2023 at the earliest.
Having to operate fewer 737 Max jets than planned has also posed challenges for Turkish vacation carrier SunExpress. The airline counted on adding more Max planes to lower operating costs and open new tourist routes. But with only 6 of its original 32-plane order delivered so far, SunExpress has been unable to expand as quickly as hoped.
Not every airline has been as impacted, however. For U.S. majors like American, United, and Southwest that fly large Max fleets, the pace of re-deliveries from Boeing has allowed their Max operations to normalize. Most of the airlines still anxiously awaiting Max planes had based future growth plans around the jet.
Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Cascading Flight Cancellations
When an airline is forced to cancel a flight, it can sometimes set off a domino effect leading to many more scrapped trips. These cascading flight cancellations demonstrate how interdependent airline route networks are and the headaches mass cancellations can cause travelers.
If an aircraft unexpectedly goes out of service right before a scheduled flight, the airline will likely need to cancel that trip since no replacement plane is available on short notice. But it doesn't stop there. All later flights that were supposed to use that same aircraft during the day also end up canceled as the plane is stuck on the ground.
For airlines, this cascading cancellation phenomenon is especially problematic during summer thunderstorms or winter blizzards. As weather causes initial flight cancellations, airlines struggle to restart operations since planes and crew members are left out of position. Hundreds more flights end up canceled as schedules crumble.
For Instance, a 2022 storm hitting Denver caused Southwest Airlines to delay or scrap over 2,000 flights nationwide over several days. A snowball effect occurred as planes couldn't arrive on time to continue scheduled journeys. Stuck passengers faced days-long struggles getting to their destinations.
United Airlines saw a similar scenario play out in late 2021 when adverse weather hit Chicago O'Hare, one of its largest hubs. Over 400 mainline United flights were canceled in Chicago, leaving many planes and pilots unable to work their next trips. Chaos ensued systemwide, with total United cancellations exceeding 2,000 flights.
When cascading cancellations happen, stranded travelers often have limited rebooking options since later flights are full or canceled themselves. While airlines may offer waivers for rebooking without fees, huge call volumes usually make it hard to reach customer service. Replacement flights can be days away.
Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Fewer Seats Mean Higher Fares
The ongoing Boeing 737 Max saga has been a key driver of higher airfares, as the groundings have reduced airline seat capacity and allowed carriers to charge more. According to aviation analysts, the decrease in available seats due to the Max situation likely accounted for around 15% of recent airfare inflation.
With Max planes comprising significant portions of airline fleets, the inability to fly these jets has directly constrained seat supply. For example, American Airlines was forced to scrap about 140 flights per day in the second half of 2019 with 24 Max planes grounded. Meanwhile Southwest, the launch customer for the Max, has had to slim down schedules after having nearly 10% of its fleet sitting idle.
Across the industry, the loss of Max planes reduced total seat capacity by millions per year at a time when travel demand was booming. from 2019 to 2022. Airlines could not add extra flights to make up for it since their available plane and pilot resources were maxed out.
This capacity crunch handed pricing power to the airlines. With fewer seats to sell, carriers did not have to discount fares as much to fill up planes. Travelers faced less choice and competition in flight options, especially on monopoly routes out of smaller cities.
According to data from aviation analytics company Cirium, the number of flights within the United States remains around 10% below 2019 levels largely due to the Max situation. This works out to around 1,500 fewer domestic flights per day, eliminating over 200,000 daily seats.
With supply lagging demand, airfares have skyrocketed. The average domestic roundtrip ticket cost $330 in mid-2022 versus $293 in 2019 according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. For popular routes like Los Angeles to Honolulu, average fares were up 50%.
Although jet fuel prices and other inflationary factors also contributed, many industry analysts estimate that nearly 15% of recent fare hikes were a direct result of reduced seat capacity from the Max groundings.
Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Boeing's Reputation Takes a Hit
The ongoing Boeing 737 Max crisis has severely damaged the manufacturer's reputation among airlines, regulators, and the flying public. Once considered the gold standard in aircraft production, Boeing now faces a long road to rebuilding trust.
For airlines that bought the Max, Boeing's handling of the situation violated expectations of safety and transparency. Carriers felt misled by rosy messaging from Boeing executives claiming the Max was merely undergoing "software fixes." In reality, flaws like the flawed MCAS system cut to the core of the jet's design. Ethiopian Airlines CEO Tewolde GebreMariam accused Boeing leadership of acting with "arrogance" and a "patronizing attitude" toward airlines after crashes.
Regulators also felt duped and adopted a more adversarial stance toward Boeing. The company downplayed the power of MCAS to the FAA during certification. After approvals were granted, the FAA's process was revealed to be rife with cozy industry relationships lacking rigor. The seeds of distrust between Boeing and its regulators were planted.
The greatest damage has occurred with the flying public. Surveys showed consumer reluctance to fly the Max even after its recertification. Ongoing media coverage of new technical problems, like an electrical flaw in 2021, further eroded confidence. Several travelers and pilots interviewed by CNN Travel in 2022 said they actively avoided the Max due to lingering safety perceptions.
This crisis in public trust has huge implications. Passenger unease translates into reputational and financial consequences. It could impact future demand for the Max, slowing Boeing's recovery. According to polls by airlineratings.com, 40 percent of respondents said they would specifically avoid the Max in booking travel even following its return to service.
Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Travelers Left Scrambling
For air travelers, the Boeing 737 Max saga has been marked by disarray, frustration, and uncertainty. With thousands of flights scrapped and schedules changing daily, the Max's woes have left travelers scrambling to reach their destinations.
Perhaps no group was more impacted than families traveling during the busy summer vacation season. Parents found long-planned trips upended by last-minute flight cancellations attributable to the 737 Max. Desperate to get kids to Disney World or elderly grandparents overseas, shelling out thousands extra for last-minute airfare was the only option for some.
Southwest Airlines, which has more Max planes than any other carrier, bore the brunt of public complaints about disrupted family vacations. JoAnn Kintzel of Chicago endured a travel nightmare in summer 2019 when Southwest canceled her family's direct flight to Denver two days before departure, forcing an overnight layover in Nashville. With nonstop options sold out, she had to split up her family across two separate flights.
Beyond families, the Max fallout wreaked havoc on business travelers who rely upon well-timed flights to attend important meetings and events. When a key trip gets derailed by a cancellation, companies lose money and reputations suffer.
Take Wisconsin-based president Max Ebenhoch of Air Metals, who flies frequently for work on Southwest. The airline canceled his flight for an industry conference in Texas just hours before takeoff, making him miss a keynote speech he was slated to give.
Even everyday leisure travelers felt the pinch. College student Jennifer Holt was stranded in the Denver airport overnight trying to get home to Phoenix after Southwest blamed a cascade of cancellations on the Max. The airline rebooked her through Salt Lake City the next evening.
"I just wanted to get back for my mom's birthday, but the Max situation ruined it all," Holt told the Wall Street Journal. "Southwest didn't even give me a meal voucher or hotel points."
Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Future of the 737 Max Uncertain
The future of the Boeing 737 Max remains uncertain even years after its global grounding. For Boeing, airlines, regulators and travelers, questions linger about the jetliner's path forward. Can Boeing fully restore trust in the Max brand? Will airlines stand by the plane or pivot to rival Airbus models? Is the Max truly safe after intense scrutiny? The coming years will prove pivotal.
Boeing faces challenges on multiple fronts rebuilding confidence in the Max, making its future sales uncertain. The company must complete deliveries for over 3,000 on-order Max planes, which could take a decade at current production rates. But new orders have slowed to a trickle as airlines wait out uncertainty or switch to the A320neo. Boeing delivered just 114 Max planes in 2021 vs. an expected 580 before the crashes.
Airlines like flydubai and VietJet Air have stuck by the Max, placing new orders since its return to service. But other carriers could still walk away. Shanghai Airlines is reportedly considering a switch to Airbus due to delay frustrations. Aeromexico is looking at scaling back its Max order. Lost orders and deferrals have already cut the Max backlog by 15%.
Boeing must also navigate remaining hurdles with global regulators. The Max only re-entered Chinese airspace in late 2022 after extensive reviews. But tensions between China and the U.S. could see future problems. India and Russia have retained tight restrictions. Ongoing scrutiny could impact Max operations.
Perhaps no challenge is greater than regaining public trust. According to a Reuters/Ipsos poll, only 20% of Americans said they would definitely fly on the Max when first re-certified. Improving those numbers will require consistent, incident-free Max flights over many months. Any new technical flaws that emerge could spell disaster for reputation.
For airlines invested in the Max, restoring passenger confidence in the jet’s capabilities will be crucial. Carriers don’t want travelers booking away from the Max, forcing them to cut routes. Southwest Airlines is even allowing nervous customers to switch their flight if booked on a Max free of charge. Such soothing measures may be necessary for years.
Grounded: How the Boeing 737 Max 9 Is Still Causing Travel Headaches - Competition from Airbus A320neo Family
The Boeing 737 Max crisis has allowed its main rival, Airbus, to gain ground in the narrowbody aircraft market with the A320neo family. As airlines faced delivery delays and operational headaches with the grounded Max, the European manufacturer has been happy to offer its alternative. This intense competition from across the Atlantic is adding further uncertainty to the Max’s future.
According to industry analysts, Airbus has capitalized on Boeing’s struggles by gobbling up hundreds of orders from carriers that previously favored the Max. For example, China Aircraft Leasing Group switched part of its 80-plane Max order to the A320neo in 2019. Since the crashes, Airbus has bagged Max defectors such as Lufthansa, which ordered A320neos as replacements.
Airbus has also outperformed on deliveries, handing over 661 A320 family jets in 2021 vs. just 140 Max planes for Boeing. With air travel booming, airlines took whatever narrowbody aircraft they could get their hands on. Leasing companies massively expanded their A320neo portfolios.
Some US airlines that fly the Max, like Delta, have publicly said their pilots and passengers now feel safer on Airbus jets versus the troubled Boeing model. Delta ordered 100 extra A321neos in 2021 for future growth.
However, not every carrier is abandoning the Max. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said his company still believes the Max is the right long-term choice. The plane brings per-seat operating cost savings of around 15% versus older 737s thanks to its fuel efficiency. This aligns with United’s focus on profitability.
For other airlines debating canceling Max orders, the prospect of financial penalties from Boeing gives them pause. The manufacturer requires compensation if deliveries are refused. As aviation consultant Mike Boyd told CNN, "it's just not that easy to walk away from a 737."
But until the Max's problems are forgotten, Airbus will likely keep attracting buyers. According to Boyd, passengers associate the Max brand with "compromised safety" while the A320neo is "just an airplane." The Max must regain the public's trust for sales momentum to recover.