“‘Due to the recent grounding of our Boeing 737 Max fleet, your flight . . . has been canceled. In order to rebook your itinerary, please contact your travel agency.’ If there’s a more stressful email to read as a trip fast approaches, I’ve yet to be sent it,” recalled AFAR senior editor Tim Chester. But that was indeed the email that dropped in Chester’s inbox from American Airlines in the run up to a weekend in New Orleans for Jazz Fest.
Chester had booked the flight through Expedia. The above notification was coupled with an already changed outbound flight from Los Angeles to New Orleans with Alaska Airlines (whose planes were being operated by American for the journey) that ensured he would arrive at a similar time. The only (pretty major) catch? It was leaving three hours earlier and was flying via Seattle. Getting to LAX at 6 a.m. to fly north (and then east) didn’t appeal to him.
“Twenty minutes on the phone with Expedia later and I’d managed to cancel that new, incredibly indirect option and was instead booked on a Delta plane following my original itinerary for the exact same price,” Chester recounted.
Unfortunately, his experience is one that might resonate with other travelers. Boeing this week announced that it is suspending production of the 737 Max, and American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines have all announced that they will not be operating their 737 Max aircraft into the spring, which means they will continue to have fewer planes to work with.
Here are all the details and what you can do if your flight is impacted.
Why have the Boeing 737 Max aircraft been taken out of service?
On March 13, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issued an order for the temporary grounding of Boeing 737 Max aircraft by U.S. airlines. The decision came following the deadly Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crash on March 10, involving a Boeing 737 Max aircraft, which killed all 157 people on board. The same aircraft was involved in a Lion Air crash in Indonesia last October that killed 189 people.
After regulators from around the world grounded the aircraft in the wake of the deadly crashes, the FAA too ultimately decided to ground the Boeing 737 Max planes as it worked to gather data and analyze evidence. To date, the FAA has not finalized that assessment and the airlines have decided to be proactive about rescheduling flights and reaccommodating passengers as they wait for further updates and direction from the FAA.
How many aircraft are being taken out of service and for how long?
American Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and United Airlines are the only three U.S. carriers with Boeing 737 Max planes in their fleet. They all immediately removed the aircraft from service on March 13, following the FAA’s order. But they have since updated their Boeing 737 Max policies numerous times, most recently having extended their groundings into spring 2020 in an effort to reduce the need for inconvenient last-minute changes.
In an updated statement issued on December 17, Southwest Airlines told travelers that the airline would be keeping its 34 Boeing 737 Max planes (which account for 5 percent of the carrier’s fleet) out of service through April 13, 2020, as it awaits further instruction from the FAA.
On December 12, American Airlines stated that it will be extending its cancellations for the Boeing 737 Max aircraft through April 7, 2020. The groundings translate into approximately 140 flights per day being canceled, according to the carrier.
United Airlines has also pulled its Boeing 737 Max flights out of its schedule until early March 2020. United has 14 of the 737 Max aircraft in its fleet, and United passengers should expect some flight alterations, too.
What are the airlines offering to impacted fliers?
For its part, American has stated that its reservations team will contact affected customers directly by email or telephone and that customers who booked through a travel agent will be contacted by their agency. For those customers who don’t want to rebook, American has stated that they may request a full refund by visiting aa.com/refunds.
Southwest has said that any customer affected by a Boeing 737 Max flight cancellation can rebook on alternate flights between the same destinations without paying any additional fees or fare differences. The carrier is proactively notifying impacted travelers of their changed travel plans, and a refund may also be requested.
United has simply stated that it will “take extraordinary steps to protect our customers’ travel plans.”
Is there anything else impacted customers can do if they aren’t happy with the changes to their flight plans?
According to Christopher Elliott, founder of consumer advocacy nonprofit group Elliott Advocacy, customers don’t have to necessarily settle for the airlines’ initial offer in the event of a changed or canceled flight due to the Boeing 737 Max groundings.
“Usually airlines, when they cancel a flight, they will quickly offer to rebook you. Those reaccommodations should be viewed with great skepticism,” said Elliott. Additionally, he said, “When [airlines] offer a full refund so close to your flight date, you can’t go out and buy another ticket because all the prices have gone up. So, it’s either like here’s this crappy-connection flight, or we’ll give you your money back.”
Instead, he advised impacted fliers to try to renegotiate. “If you see a better flight [airlines will often] reaccommodate you on a better flight,” he added.
He also noted that travelers could ask customer service representatives (or their supervisors) to “endorse the ticket to another airline,” which entails transferring the value of the ticket to another airline if the traveler finds a better replacement flight with another carrier. When on the phone with customer service, he said that being patient and polite will likely get travelers a lot further than being unfriendly and irritable.
Leaning on loyalty can help, too. Those travelers with frequent flier status with the airlines shouldn’t hesitate to mention that status when working to reaccommodate a flight.
What will be the fate of the Boeing 737 Max planes?
As the FAA continues its investigation into and assessment of the safety of the Boeing 737 Max aircraft, and following the news of Boeing halting production of the 737 Max, the fate of the troubled plane is increasingly in question.
Boeing’s decision is a recognition that it will take longer than the company expected to get the planes back in the air.
“If they had gotten some information quietly, behind the scenes, from the FAA that things were looking good for January or February, they wouldn’t have done this,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aircraft industry analyst at the Teal Group.
The FAA told the company last week that it had unrealistic expectations for getting the plane back into service. Boeing has missed several estimates for the plane’s return date. The FAA has not given a specific date for approving the Max’s return, but FAA administrator Stephen Dickson has said it will be done on the agency’s timetable, not Boeing’s.
Boeing said it will determine later when production can resume, based largely on approval from government regulators.
The FAA has a dedicated web page where it is posting all of the developments and announcements about its ongoing investigation into the Boeing 737 Max. But the agency has not declared when it will likely be prepared to present its findings.
The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story. This article originally appeared online on April 18, 2019, and was updated on December 18, 2019, to reflect current information.
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Michelle Baran Michelle Baran is the senior travel news editor at AFAR where she oversees breaking news, travel intel, pandemic coverage, airline, cruise, and consumer travel news. Baran joined AFAR in August 2018 after an 11-year run as a senior editor and reporter at leading travel industry newspaper Travel Weekly.