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Report on Business Air Canada, WestJet scramble to change schedules after grounding of Boeing 737 Max jet

Grounded Air Canada Boeing 737 Max 8 aircrafts are pictured at YVR airport in Vancouver, British Columbia on March 13, 2019.

BEN NELMS/The Globe and Mail

Canada’s two largest airlines are facing the complex logistical task of revamping their flight schedules for weeks in advance after the grounding of the Boeing 737 Max jet.

Air Canada and WestJet Airlines Ltd. say they don’t know how long the plane will be banned, after deadly crashes of the Max 8 in Ethiopia and Indonesia within five months. But the two Canadian carriers are rescheduling hundreds of flights for the days and weeks ahead, including scrambling to find replacement aircraft during a busy travel period.

On Wednesday, Canada and the United States grounded Max aircraft. More than 40 other countries had already banned operation of the narrow-body plane by Tuesday night.

“For now we are cancelling all flights on our Boeing 737 Max fleet for the next three weeks and we will continue to modify our plan as needed,” Air Canada spokeswoman Angela Mah said in a statement on Thursday.

Calgary-based WestJet is making a wide array of changes to its schedule through the end of March. “We are in the process of reconfiguring our schedule to remove all 737 Max 8 flights and move guests to other aircraft,” WestJet spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said.

Montreal-based Air Canada has 24 Boeing 737 Max 8s in its fleet, while WestJet flies 13 of the planes.

Toronto-based Sunwing Airlines Inc., which specializes in flying leisure travellers to vacation spots, has four Max 8s. Sunwing has adjusted its schedule to fly without the Max 8 until March 30, and has contingency plans beyond that date to continue using replacement aircraft.

A Max 8 operated by Ethiopian Airlines crashed on Sunday shortly after takeoff from Addis Ababa bound for Nairobi, killing 157 people, including 18 Canadians. In October, 189 people died when a 737 Max 8 flown by Lion Air of Indonesia plunged into the Java Sea soon after taking off from Jakarta on a short-haul flight.

Parking the banned jets has taken careful planning, since the planes need to be stored in locations that also allow them to be rapidly redeployed when required.

“We had to find space quickly at six airports around the country and in doing this we also had to be sure they are also positioned for an eventual return to service,” Ms. Mah said. “It is a massive challenge affecting all aspects of our business.”

Planning changes to the routes has been complicated. Air Canada’s strategy has included redeploying its wide-body planes such as the Boeing 777, 787 Dreamliner, 767-300ER and Airbus 330. Narrow-body aircraft include the Airbus A320 and Embraer 190s, as well as the Bombardier Q400 turboprop at Air Canada’s regional operations.

WestJet is relying on replacements such as the Boeing 737 NG, 787 Dreamliner and Q400.

Raymond James Ltd. analyst Ben Cherniavsky said it is unclear what expenses will ultimately be booked by Air Canada and WestJet. “There are many inestimable costs that both WestJet and Air Canada will have to incur to manage a disruption of this size,” he said in a research note.

Cowen and Co. analyst Helane Becker said the Ethiopian Airlines tragedy will have business implications for airlines because without the Max, they will have to delay the retirement of existing jets.

Other industry experts say that the financial impact on airlines could be lessened by Boeing Co. shouldering some of the unexpected costs of its customers.

A lengthy grounding of Max jets would place a cash burden on carriers, but airlines will likely seek to recover funds from Boeing, according to a report by Macquarie Research. Some airlines will look to short-term aircraft leases to find replacement planes, Macquarie added.

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