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Grounding of Boeing 737 MAX to affect travel skeds

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Flight cancellations and passenger rebookings will likely spread throughout airline systems following President Trump’s order grounding Boeing Co.’s fleet of 737 MAX airliners Wednesday.

The most likely flights to get canceled: Trips on routes where airlines have multiple flights a day so that passengers can be more easily rebooked on other flights, according to airlines’ officials.

The grounding of Boeing’s newest single-aisle plane in US airspace follows two high-profile crashes of 737 MAX planes within less than five months, which precipitated the grounding of the aircraft by regulators around the world in the last few days. As he announced on Wednesday that the US was also stopping domestic airlines and others from using Boeing’s newest single-aisle plane in US airspace, Mr. Trump said: “The safety of the American people and all people is our paramount concern.”

Three US airlines fly a total of 72 MAX planes on routes like New York to Miami and Houston to Los Angeles. That is a relatively small portion of their fleets, but the planes carry thousands of passengers each day, with close to 50,000 seats available on MAX flights daily. At least during spring-break travel seasons, empty seats for displaced passengers may be scarce.

Airlines will likely shift planes around their networks to minimize disruptions – a carrier might pull a plane like a 737-800 from a route with many daily flights to preserve service between a pair of cities that has just one flight a day. That means some passengers flying in the next six weeks may get canceled even if they’re not booked on a Boeing 737 MAX because of the shuffling of planes.

United Continental Holdings, Inc., which uses its 14 MAX 9 planes on 40 flights daily, said it would keep its cancellations to MAX trips, and expects to cover many of those flights with spare aircraft. Other passengers will get rebooked on other flights.

“We do not anticipate a significant operational impact as a result of this order,” United said in a statement.

American Airlines Group, Inc., which had concentrated all of its 24 MAX 8 jets on flights into and out of Miami, says cancellations will be spread throughout its system. Some MAX trips will be covered by other aircraft pulled from routes with lots of flights. MAXes make 85 flights a day for the carrier.

“We apologize for any inconvenience,” the airline said in a statement.
Southwest Airlines Co. has the largest fleet of MAX aircraft, with 34 such planes, which fly 150 flights a day or about 4% of its daily schedule.

Southwest said it was able to use other planes that were available due to winter storm cancellations to help cover flying on Wednesday, and canceled five MAX flights. The airline said that anyone booked on a canceled MAX flight will be able to change to a new flight within two weeks of their original travel without paying any fee or fare difference.

Passengers whose flights are canceled are entitled to a refund, but airlines said they would rebook them on other flights automatically when possible with no change fees or increased fare. If stranded by a canceled flight, airlines say they’ll pay for hotels and meals on a case-by-case basis.

Airline contracts treat federally ordered groundings much like bad weather – exempt from responsibility because of events outside their control. But carriers say they likely will make exceptions for stranded customers in this case. A spokesman for American says it will pay for accommodations on a case-by-case basis. A spokesman for United says the airline will assist any stranded customers.

Some fliers sought to change travel plans to avoid flying on MAX planes even before the grounding. Southwest had started allowing travelers to switch flights without paying the typical difference in fare. (WSJ)

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