As airlines and airports scramble to recover from the worldwide grounding of the Boeing 737 MAX 8 jet in the wake of two deadly crashes, one B.C. aviation expert says passengers could see their summer vacation plans get a lot more expensive.
Canada joined the rest of the world on March 13 in taking the troubled jets out of the skies following this month’s crash in Ethiopia that killed all 157 people on board, including 18 Canadians.
That created massive problems for several airlines, including Air Canada, whose 24 MAX 8s account for 12 per cent of its 191-plane fleet, not counting aircraft servicing its subsidiaries like Rouge and Jazz.
The airline has said it will keep those jets grounded until at least July 1, substituting them with other planes in the meantime while suspending some routes.
UBC Sauder School of Business aviation professor Tae Hoon Oum said that will cause Air Canada and others to raise their prices to take advantage of increased demand.
“Air travel costs will go up significantly this summer, especially in Canada,” Oum said. “Air Canada will need to consolidate and will need to make major changes to their operations, and that will cost them money, too.”
Air Canada isn’t alone. WestJet has 13 MAX 8s with nine more on order, according to data from 2018, making up 10 per cent of its 129-plane fleet.
Around 75 737 MAX 8 flights were being operated by Air Canada daily before the grounding, representing less than six per cent of its approximately 1,600 daily flights, the airline said last Tuesday.
But it also said those flights carry between 9,000 and 12,000 passengers a day so customers could expect delays in rebooking and reaching customer service.
Oum said the only way for people to avoid the rising fares will be to either postpone their vacation plans or rebook with another airline that has fewer MAX 8s in their fleet. But he warned that relief could be short-lived.
“All the airlines will be jacking up their own prices because they know there will be a shortage of seats,” he said.
Boeing has been doing its own scrambling as the company tried to make changes to its pilot training courses for the MAX 8 and offered a software update for which it had previously charged to airlines for free.
That update fixes a bug in the plane’s automated stall-prevention system that causes the nose of the jet to repeatedly push down, which investigators believe caused last October’s crash of a Lion Air flight in Indonesia that killed all 189 people on board.
It is not known whether the same flight-control system played a role in the crash of the Ethiopian Airlines jet, but regulators say both planes had similarly erratic flight paths, an important part of their decision to ground the roughly 370 MAX 8 planes around the world.
Both flights flew with erratic altitude changes that could indicate the pilots struggled to control the aircraft. Shortly after their takeoffs, both crews tried to return to the airports but crashed.
Aviation consultant Wayne McNeal said the software update could get the jets back into the air soon but warned that could be derailed if investigators find more problems.
“If the [U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)] deems there is a connection between the heavier engine and the engines have to be moved [to another part of the plane], then it could be months and months and months before a MAX 8 flies again,” McNeal said.
Oum, meanwhile, places the blame for the grounding and the impact it could have on travellers’ summer plans directly on Boeing itself.
“They certified the aircraft prematurely because they felt strong competition from Airbus,” he said. “But the responsibility also lies with the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FAA who allowed Boeing employees to certify their own aircraft. It was definitely in a conflict of interest.”
—With files from Grace Ke, Katie Dangerfield and the Associated Press
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