Boeing 737 Max 8 grounding: What does it mean for travelers?

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Under normal circumstances, most travelers rarely bother to look at which model of plane they're flying on.Worrying events over the last few days thou...

Posted: Mar. 15, 2019 7:36 AM

Under normal circumstances, most travelers rarely bother to look at which model of plane they're flying on.

Worrying events over the last few days though, have made passengers pay closer attention to their plane tickets.

The particular aircraft in the news is the Boeing 737 Max 8, which has been grounded by authorities around the world following two fatal accidents in a matter of months.

On Sunday, 157 people were killed when Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 crashed shortly after take-off, and 189 people died when a Lion Air plane crashed in Indonesia in late October.

Similarities between the incidents led various aviation authorities around the world to ban the 737 Max 8 from their airspace, sparking a major crisis for manufacturer Boeing, and some have banned all variants of the 737 Max series.

But what does it mean for travelers?

Travel disruption

There are 371 737 Max aircraft in service around the world, according to aviation analysts Flight Global, of which 344 are the Max 8 variant.

This is a small percentage of the total number of aircraft in our skies, but the sudden ban has already led to some disruption.

US carriers, including American Airlines, Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, that fly Max 8 planes began canceling some flights and were working to rebook the affected passengers.

In a statement, American Airlines told CNN approximately 85 flights would be canceled daily due to the grounded Max 8 fleet, equivalent to 1% of daily flights worldwide.

Various airlines including Air Canada, Silk Air and TUI released statements apologizing for the disruption and committing to reorganizing flights using different planes.

Southwest Airlines is one of a number of airlines that have waived cancellation and rebooking fees in response to the disruption.

Henrik Zillmer, CEO of AirHelp, an organization specializing in air passenger rights, said travelers "are now facing a rising tide of flight delays and cancellations around the world."

However he said airlines could mitigate the situation.

"If airlines act fast and look ahead, they could avoid further chaos by potentially reassigning flights," said Zilmer in a statement.

"Without proactive action, this situation could quickly lead to canceled or overbooked flights, and ultimately, boarding denials."

Others are more optimistic, citing the fact that the aircraft were grounded months before the busy northern hemisphere summer season and most airlines only operate a small number of the planes.

"We do not foresee a significant impact of the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft on passengers in Europe," a spokesman for UK passenger rights organization Flightright told CNN via email, adding that only a handful of 737 MAX aircraft have been delivered to European airlines.

In the US, even those airlines that are among the largest 737 Max customers have lots of other planes to draw on.

Southwest Airlines flew 34 Max 8 aircraft out of a total of 750 Boeing 737s, a spokesperson told CNN via email, which means more than 95% of its fleet is unaffected by the ban.

The spokesman for Flightright claimed that most airlines have spare capacity, and those that don't can sublease extra aircraft.

The 2017 collapse of German airline Air Berlin provides a useful test case, said the spokesman, when other airlines reacted quickly to the rising demand.

However some airlines are more vulnerable than others.

Norwegian, which owns 18 of the aircraft, relies heavily on the fuel efficiency of the 737 Max 8 to achieve savings, said the Flightright spokesman.

"As such, we would advise passengers who have a reservation with Norwegian to keep an eye on their flight schedule in the coming weeks," he said.

In a statement, Norwegian apologized to affected customers and said that information would be sent out via text message and online.

"We are now working on re-allocating our fleet options with other aircraft types, re-bookings to other flights and combining flights to minimize inconvenience caused for our passengers," read the statement.

Are you entitled to compensation if your flight is disrupted?

Passengers affected by the Max 8 ban will not be able to claim compensation, according to Omid Azizi-Torkanpour, managing director of passenger rights organization Flight Reclaim, because the disruption is classed as extraordinary by the UK's Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and therefore outside of the airline's control.

"Airlines will still be required to provide care and assistance to consumers, and to reroute them to their final destination if the consumer still wishes to travel but will not be required to financially compensate them," reads a statement from the CAA.

"We have already been receiving claims for this scenario but have had to explain to passengers that the nature of the disruption is one in which compensation is not payable," Azizi-Torkanpour told CNN via email.

However airlines do have a responsibility to make alternative arrangements for their passengers and their liability to pay compensation depends on how long aviation authorities consider the situation to be "extraordinary."

In turn this could vary depending on the percentage of 737 Max planes flown by individual airlines, according to Flightright.

Most airlines will likely be given two to three days after grounding to bring in extra capacity through leased aircraft, said the company, although Norwegian and Icelandair, which owns six Max 8 aircraft, could be given up to seven days due to the higher percentage of affected aircraft in their fleets.

What should passengers do?

"We'd encourage passengers to proactively rebook flights on a different aircraft rather than canceling their own travel plans, as travelers do not have a right to compensation or reimbursement for tickets purchased if they choose to cancel," Airhelp CEO Henrik Zillmer told CNN.

It's also worth checking the terms and conditions of your travel insurance policy, said Steve Nowottny, of UK consumer website MoneySavingExpert.com.

"If your flight is disrupted and you suffer other losses as a result -- for instance, if you have hotel or car hire bookings you can't cancel -- it's worth checking if your travel insurance policy covers 'consequential loss,' though this will only apply in some cases," Nowottny told CNN via email.

While most airlines should be able to adequately deal with the immediate disruption in the coming days, there is potential for the 737 Max ban to reverberate throughout the industry in the future.

The aircraft look set to be grounded for an extended period, according to Joseph Schwieterman, an aviation expert and professor in transportation at De Paul University in Chicago, and any interruption to the delivery of new planes could disrupt efforts to expand airline schedules in summer.

"We're not going to see airports departure boards filled with cancellation announcements. It will be more subtle," Schwieterman told CNN via email. He added that it remained to be seen if the crisis will have a knock-on effect over the "frenzied summertime travel season."

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