The worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 Max passenger jet has thrown into chaos the March break travel plans of thousands of Canadians.
Air Canada says it has adjusted its flight schedules through to April 30 and will drop the 737 Max models from its itineraries until “at least” July 1. Until the halt, Air Canada flew as many as 12,000 customers a day on the planes, accounting for about 7 per cent of seat capacity.
Morgan Bell, a WestJet spokeswoman, said the Max grounding affects 35 flights a day or a total of 65,000 customers up to March 31. She said 85 per cent of these flyers have had “little to no changes to their flight schedules.”
Regulators in the United States, Canada and dozens of other countries grounded the Boeing 737 Max 8 and 9 after two deadly crashes of the new model in the past six months. U.S.-based Boeing suspended the delivery of all 737 Max planes, including two to WestJet, as it works with regulators and investigators to determine the causes of the March 10 crash in Ethiopia that killed 157, and the Indonesian crash that killed 189 in October.
Both planes crashed to Earth minutes after taking off, and the pilots reported trouble controlling the aircraft.
Canadian airlines, amid a period of fleet renewal, rely heavily on the new models, which are updated versions of an aircraft that began flying in 1967. Air Canada has 24 Max planes in its fleet of about 190. WestJet has 13 in its 181-plane fleet. Sunwing Airlines has four. The groundings halted dozens of flights amid the busy March break travel season.
Carly Scaife, an office administrator from Calgary, began planning a two-week vacation in Europe with her sister more than six months ago. She bought WestJet tickets to London departing on March 17, but was told the day before by the airline her flight would not leave until Tuesday, and only then after two connecting flights to Winnipeg and Toronto.
After several frantic calls with WestJet, she cancelled the tickets to London and bought seats on an Air Canada flight, a switch that cost an additional $500 even after getting a refund from WestJet.
“It was so stressful,” Ms. Scaife said by phone from London, England, on Friday. “I didn’t want to leave two days later. We had our accommodation booked [and] our trains.”
She was not booked on a 737 Max, and wonders if she was bumped because she bought her ticket on sale.
WestJet said the 737 Max grounding spurred a reshuffling of its schedules, including 14 cancelled flights on March 17 that affected 1,600 people. Eight hundred of those customers were booked on flights for March 18 or 19.
Jeff Overgaard of Delta, B.C., is another vacationer whose plans were upended by the 737 Max groundings. WestJet told the school teacher, his wife and two children their return flight from Mexico would be delayed by five days. The new travel itinerary, in an e-mail from WestJet seen by The Globe and Mail, meant Mr. Overgaard would have to find and pay for four extra nights in Puerto Vallarta and one night in Regina. This would have cost an additional $2,000 for the hotel stays, plus time off work.
“Being rerouted, I get that that happens, but five nights is kind of a big deal,” Mr. Overgaard said in an interview. “Especially when four of them are in Mexico over spring break without any reservations or anything. We cancelled. I couldn’t take the extra days off because that would be without pay.”
He is frustrated WestJet initially told him there were no changes to his flight, and then refused to stick with the travel plan he paid for. “They just said they can’t, given the extenuating circumstances. I get the reality of what’s happening here in terms of the grounding of the planes but they’ve clearly made a company decision to, you know, just to say, ‘sorry folks you’re on your own,’ which is the message we got over and over. ‘Nothing we can do. Nothing we can do.’ ”
Mr. Overgaard, who was travelling with his mother, brother and their families in a group of 11, cancelled the tickets and bought seats on Swoop, a subsidiary of WestJet.
Ms. Bell of WestJet said customers bumped or delayed are moved to the next available WestJet or WestJet Encore flight, she said, but not Swoop.
Meanwhile, Indonesian carrier Garuda said on Friday it will cancel a US$6-billion order for 737 Max planes, citing the crashes that have made passengers afraid to fly on the planes. Analysts cast doubt on the airline’s justification for the cancellation, noting the region has a glut of aircraft, and the carrier had already been reconsidering the orders.
WestJet on Friday said it had no plans to cancel its orders for the planes. Air Canada did not respond to questions about its deliveries of the planes and scheduling. Both carriers suspended their 2019 financial forecasts after the groundings.
As Boeing works on a software update to the plane’s automated anti-stall control system, investigators are trying to find out why two new planes crashed minutes after takeoff. The focus of the investigation includes the plane’s automated anti-stall feature, which forces the nose of the plane downward. In both crashes, the pilots appeared to repeatedly raised the nose of their respective planes, but apparently lost the battle for control.
Marc Garneau, Canada’s Transport Minister, told reporters this week the government will conduct its own certification of the 737 Max, and will review Ottawa’s 2017 approval of the plane’s airworthiness. Additionally, Mr. Garneau said 737 Max pilots at the three Canadian carriers will be required to undergo new training and follow new procedures.